The Helen of the Old House by Harold Bell Wright
Book III. The Strike
Chapter XXIV. The Flats
Helen Ward knew that she could not put off much longer giving McIver a definite answer. When she was with him, the things that so disturbed her mind and heart were less real--she was able to see things clearly from the point of view to which she had been trained. Her father's mental condition was nothing more than a nervous trouble resulting from overwork--John's ideals were highly creditable to his heart and she loved him dearly for them, but they were wholly impossible in a world where certain class standards must be maintained--the Mill took again its old vague, indefinite place in her life--the workman Charlie Martin must live only in her girlhood memories, those secretly sad memories that can have no part in the grown-up present and must not be permitted to enter into one's consideration of the future. In short, the presence of McIver always banished effectually the Helen of the old house: with him the daughter of Adam Ward was herself.
And Helen was tempted by this feeling of relief to speak the decisive word that would finally put an end to her indecision and bring at least the peace of certainty to her troubled mind. In the light of her education and environment, there was every reason why she should say, "Yes" to McIver's insistent pleadings. There was no shadow of a reason why she should refuse him. One word and the Helen of the old house would be banished forever--the princess lady would reign undisturbed.
And yet, for some reason, that word was not spoken. Helen told herself that she would speak it. But on each occasion she put it off. And always when the man was gone and she was alone, in spite of the return in full force of all her disturbing thoughts and emotions, she was glad that she had not committed herself irrevocably--that she was still free.
She had never felt the appeal of all that McIver meant to her as she felt it that Sunday. She had never been more disturbed and unhappy than she was the following day when John told her a little of his midnight experience with their father and how Adam's excitement had been caused by Peter Martin's visit. All of which led her, early in the afternoon, to the Interpreter.
* * * * *
She found the old basket maker working with feverish energy. Billy Rand at the bench in the corner of the room was as busy with his part of their joint industry.
It was the Interpreter's habit, when Helen was with him, to lay aside his work. But of late he had continued the occupation of his hands even as he talked with her. She had noticed this, as women always notice such things--but that was all. On this day, when the old man in the wheel chair failed to give her his undivided attention, something in his manner impressed the trivial incident more sharply on her mind.
He greeted her kindly, as always, but while she was conscious of no lack of warmth in his welcome, she felt in the deep tones of that gentle voice a sadness that moved her to quick concern. The dark eyes that never failed to light with pleasure at her coming were filled with weary pain. The strong face was thin and tired. As he bent his white head over the work in his lap he seemed to have grown suddenly very weak and old.
With an awakened mind, the young woman looked curiously about the room.
She had never seen it so filled with materials and with finished baskets. The table with the big lamp and the magazines and papers had been moved into the far corner against the book shelves, as though he had now neither time nor thought for reading. The floor was covered thick with a litter of chips and shavings. Even silent Billy's face was filled with anxiety and troubled care as he looked from Helen to his old companion in the wheel chair and slowly turned back to his work on the bench.
"What is the matter here?" she demanded, now thoroughly aroused.
"Matter?" returned the Interpreter. "Is there anything wrong here, Helen?"
"You are not well," she insisted. "You look all worn out--as if you had not slept for weeks--what is it?"
"Oh, that is nothing," he answered, with a smile. "Billy and I have been working overtime a little--that is all."
"But why?" she demanded, "why must you wear yourself out like this? Surely there is no need for you to work so hard, day and night."
He answered as if he were not sure that he had heard her aright. "No need, Helen? Surely, child, you cannot be so ignorant of the want that exists within sight of your home?"
She returned his look wonderingly. "You mean the strike?"
Bending over his work again, the old basket maker answered, sorrowfully, "Yes, Helen, I mean the strike."
There was something in the Interpreter's manner--something in the weary, drooping figure in that wheel chair--in the tired, deep-lined face--in the pain-filled eyes and the gentle voice that went to the deeps of Helen Ward's woman heart.
With her, as with every one in Millsburgh, the strike was a topic of daily conversation. She sympathized with her brother in his anxiety. She was worried over the noticeable effect of the excitement upon her father. She was interested in McIver's talk of the situation. But in no vital way had her life been touched by the industrial trouble. In no way had she come in actual contact with it. The realities of the situation were to her vague, intangible, remote from her world, as indeed the Mill itself had been, before her visit with John that day. To her, the Interpreter was of all men set apart from the world. In his little hut on the cliff, with his books and his basket making, her gentle old friend's life, it seemed to her, held not one thing in common with the busy world that lay within sight of the balcony-porch. The thought that the industrial trouble could in any way touch him came to her with a distinct shock.
"Surely," she protested, at last, "the strike cannot affect you. It has nothing to do with your work."
"Every strike has to do with all work everywhere, child," returned the man in the wheel chair, while his busy fingers wove the fabric of a basket. "Every idle hand in the world, Helen, whatever the cause of its idleness, compels some other's hand to do its work. The work of the world must be done, child--somehow, by some one--the work of the world must be done. The little Maggies and Bobbies of the Flats down there must be fed, you know--and their mother too--yes, and Sam Whaley himself must be cared for. And so you see, because of the strike, Billy and I must work overtime."
Certainly there was no hint of rebuke in the old basket maker's kindly voice, but the daughter of Adam Ward felt her cheeks flush with a quick sense of shame. That her old friend in the wheel chair should so accept the responsibility of his neighbor's need and give himself thus to help them, while she--
"Is there," she faltered, "is there really so much suffering among the strikers?"
Without raising his eyes from his work, he answered, "The women and children--they are so helpless."
"I--I did not realize," she murmured. "I did not know."
"You were not ignorant of the helpless women and children who suffered in foreign lands," he returned. "Why should you not know of the mothers and babies in Millsburgh?"
"But McIver says--" she hesitated.
The Interpreter caught up her words. "McIver says that by feeding the starving families of the strikers the strike is prolonged. He relies upon the hunger and cold and sickness of the women and children for his victory. And Jake Vodell relies upon the suffering in the families of his followers for that desperate frenzy of class hatred, without which he cannot gain his end. Does McIver want for anything? No! Is Jake Vodell in need? No! It is not the imperialistic leaders in these industrial wars who pay the price. It is always the little Bobbies and Maggies who pay. The people of America stood aghast with horror when an unarmed passenger ship was torpedoed or a defenseless village was bombed by order of a ruthless Kaiser; but we permit these Kaisers of capital and labor to carry on their industrial wars without a thought of the innocent ones who must suffer under their ruthless policies."
He paused; then, with no trace of bitterness, but only sadness in his voice, he added, "You say you do not know, child--and yet, you could know so easily if you would. Little Bobby and Maggie do not live in a far-off land across the seas. They live right over there in the shadow of your father's Mill--the Mill which supplies you, Helen, with every material need and luxury of your life."
As if she could bear to hear no more, Helen rose quickly and went from the room to stand on the balcony-porch.
It was not so much the Interpreter's words--it was rather the spirit in which they were spoken that moved her so deeply. By her own heart she was judged. "For every idle hand," he had said. Her hands were idle hands. Her old white-haired friend in his wheel chair was doing her work. His crippled body drooped with weariness over his task because she did nothing. His face was lined with care because she was careless of the need that burdened him. His eyes were filled with sadness and pain because she was indifferent--because she did not know--had not cared to know.
* * * * *
The sun was almost down that afternoon when Bobby Whaley came out of the wretched house that was his home to stand on the front doorstep. The dingy, unpainted buildings of the Flats--the untidy hovels and shanties--the dilapidated fences and broken sidewalks--unlovely at best, in the long shadows of the failing day, were sinister with the gloom of poverty.
High above the Mill the twisting columns of smoke from the tall stacks caught the last of the sunlight and formed slow, changing cloud-shapes--rolling hills of brightness with soft, shadowy valleys and canons of mysterious depths between--towering domes and crags and castled heights--grim, foreboding, beautiful.
The boy who stood on the steps, looking so listlessly about, was not the daring adventurer who had so boldly led his sister up the zigzag steps to the Interpreter's hut. He was not the Bobby who had ridden in such triumph beside the princess lady so far into the unknown country. His freckled face was thin and pinched. The skin was drawn tight over the high cheek bones and the eyes were wide and staring. His young body that had been so sturdy was gaunt and skeletonlike. The dirty rags that clothed him were scarcely enough to hide his nakedness. The keen autumn air that had put the flush of good red blood into the cheeks of the golfers at the country club that afternoon whirled about his bare feet and legs with stinging cruelty. His thin lips and wasted limbs were blue with cold. Turning slowly, he seemed about to reenter the house, but when his hand touched the latch he paused and once more uncertainly faced toward the street. There was no help for him in his home. He knew no other place to go for food or shelter.
As the boy again looked hopelessly about the wretched neighborhood, he saw a woman coming down the street. He could tell, even at that distance, that the lady was a stranger to the Flats. Her dress, simple as it was, and her veil marked her as a resident of some district more prosperous than that grimy community in the shadow of the Mill.
A flash of momentary interest lighted the hungry eyes of the lad. But, no, it could not be one of the charity workers--the charity ladies always came earlier in the day and always in automobiles.
Then he saw the stranger stop and speak to a boy in front of a house two doors away. The neighbor boy pointed toward Bobby and the lady came on, walking quickly as if she were a little frightened at being alone amid such surroundings.
At the gap where once had been a gate in the dilapidated fence, she turned in toward the house and the wondering boy on the front step. She was within a few feet of the lad when she stopped suddenly with a low exclamation.
Bobby thought that she had discovered her mistake in coming to the wrong place. But the next moment she was coming closer, and he heard, "Bobby, is that really you! You poor child, have you been ill?"
"I ain't been sick, if that's what yer mean," returned the boy. "Mag is, though. She's worse to-day."
His manner was sullenly defiant, as if the warmly dressed stranger had in some way revealed herself as his enemy.
"Don't you know me, Bobby?"
"Not with yer face covered up like that, I don't."
She laughed nervously and raised her veil.
"Huh, it's you, is it? Funny--Mag's been a-talkin' about her princess lady all afternoon. What yer doin' here?"
Before this hollow-cheeked skeleton of a boy Helen Ward felt strangely like one who, conscious of guilt, is brought suddenly into the presence of a stern judge.
"Why, Bobby," she faltered, "I--I came to see you and Maggie--I was at the Interpreter's this afternoon and he told me--I mean something he said made me want to come."
"The Interpreter, he's all right," said the boy. "So's Mary Martin."
"Aren't you just a little glad to see me, Bobby?"
The boy did not seem to hear. "Funny the way Mag talks about yer all the time. She's purty sick all right. Peterson's baby, it died."
"Can't we go into the house and see Maggie? You must be nearly frozen standing out here in the cold."
"Huh, I'm used to freezin'--I guess yer can come on in though--if yer want to. Mebbe Mag 'd like to see yer."
He pushed open the door, and she followed him into the ghastly barrenness of the place that he knew as home.
Never before had the daughter of Adam Ward viewed such naked, cruel poverty. She shuddered with the horror of it. It was so unreal--so unbelievable.
A small, rusty cookstove with no fire--a rude table with no cloth--a rickety cupboard with its shelves bare save for a few dishes--two broken-backed chairs--that was all. No, it was not all--on a window ledge, beneath a bundle of rags that filled the opening left by a broken pane, was a small earthen flowerpot holding a single scraggly slip of geranium.
Helen seemed to hear again the Interpreter saying, "A girl with true instincts for the best things of life and a capacity for great happiness."
At Bobby's call, Mrs. Whaley came from another room.
The boy did not even attempt an introduction but stood sullenly aside, waiting developments, and the mother in her pitiful distress evidently failed to identify their visitor when Helen introduced herself.
"I'm pleased to meet you, ma'am," she said, mechanically, and gazed at the young woman with a stony indifference, as though her mind, deadened by fearful anxiety and physical suffering, refused even to wonder at the stranger's presence in her home.
Helen did not know what to say--in the presence of this living tragedy of motherhood she felt so helpless, so overwhelmed with the uselessness of mere words. What right had she, a stranger from another world, to intrude unasked upon the privacy of this home? And yet, something deep within her--something more potent in its authority than the conventionalities that had so far ruled her life--assured her that she had the right to be there.
"I--I called to see Bobby and Maggie," she faltered. "I met them, you know, at the Interpreter's."
As if Helen's mention of the old basket maker awakened a spark of life in her pain-deadened senses, the woman returned, "Yes, ma'am--take a chair. No, not that one--it's broke. Here--this one will hold you up, I guess."
With nervous haste she dusted the chair with her apron. "You'd best keep your things on. We don't have no fire except to cook by--when there's anything to cook."
She found a match and lighted a tiny lamp, for it was growing dark.
"Bobby tells me that little Maggie is ill," offered Helen.
Mrs. Whaley looked toward the door of that other room and wrung her thin, toil-worn hands in the agony of her mother fear. "Yes, ma'am--she's real bad, I guess. Poor child, she's been ailin' for some time. And since the strike--" Her voice broke, and her eyes, dry as if they had long since exhausted their supply of tears, were filled with hopeless misery.
"We had the doctor once before things got so bad; about the time my man quit his work in the Mill to help Jake Vodell, it was. And the doctor he said all she needed was plenty of good food and warm clothes and a chance to play in the fresh country air."
She looked grimly about the bare room. "We couldn't have the doctor no more. I don't know as it would make any difference if we could. My man, he's away most of the time. I ain't seen him since yesterday mornin'. And to-day Maggie's been a lot worse. I--I'm afraid--"
Helen wanted to cry aloud. Was it possible that she had asked the Interpreter only a few hours before if there was really much suffering in the families of the strikers? "You can see Maggie if you want," said the mother. "She's in there."
She rose as if to show her visitor to the room.
But Helen said, quickly, "In just a moment. Mrs. Whaley, won't you tell me first--is there--is there no one to help you?" She asked the question timidly, as if fearing to offend.
The other woman answered, hopelessly, "The charity ladies do a little, and the Interpreter and Mary Martin do all they can. But you see, ma'am, there's so many others just like us that there ain't near enough to go 'round."
The significance of the woman's colorless words went to Helen's heart with appalling force--"so many others just like us." This stricken home was not then an exception. With flashing vividness her mind pictured many rooms similar to the cold and barren apartment where she sat. She visioned as clearly as she saw Mrs. Whaley the many other wives and mothers with Bobbies and Maggies who were caught helplessly in the monstrous net of the strike, as these were caught. She knew now why the Interpreter and Billy Rand worked so hard. And again she felt her cheeks burn with shame as when the old basket maker had said, "For every idle hand--"
Helen Ward had been an active leader in the foreign relief work during the war. Her portrait had even been published in the papers as one who was devoted to the cause of the stricken women and children abroad. But that had all been impersonal, while this--Already in her heart she was echoing the old familiar cry of the comparative few, "If only the people knew! If only they could be made to see as she had been made to see! The people are not so cruel. They simply do not know. They are ignorant, as she was ignorant."
Aloud she was saying to Bobby, as she thrust her purse in the boy's hand, "You must run quickly, Bobby, to the nearest store and get the things that your mother needs first, and have some one telephone for a doctor to come at once."
To the mother she added, hurriedly, as if fearing a protest, "Please, Mrs. Whaley, let me help. I am so sorry I did not know before. Won't you forgive me and let me help you now?"
"Gee!" exclaimed Bobby, who had opened the purse. "Look-ee, mom! Gee!"
As one in a dream, the mother turned from the money in the boy's hand to Helen. "You ain't meanin', ma'am, for us to use all that?"
"Yes--yes--don't be afraid to get what you need--there will be more when that is gone."
The poor woman did not fill the air with loud cries of hysterical gratitude and superlative prayers to God for His blessing upon this one who had come so miraculously to her relief. For a moment she stood trembling with emotion, while her tearless eyes were fixed upon Helen's face with a look of such gratitude that the young woman was forced to turn away lest her own feeling escape her control. Then, snatching the money from the boy's hands, she said, "I had better go myself, ma'am--Bobby can come along to help carry things. If you"--she hesitated, with a look toward that other room--"if you wouldn't mind stayin' with Maggie till we get back?"
A minute later and Helen was alone in that wretched house in the Flats--alone save for the sick child in the next room.
The door to the street had scarcely closed when a wave of terror swept over her. She started to her feet. She could not do it. She would call Mrs. Whaley back. She would go herself for the needed things. But there was a strength in Helen Ward that few of her most intimate friends, even, realized; and before her hand touched the latch of the door she had command of herself once more. In much the same spirit that her brother John perhaps had faced a lonely night watch in Flanders fields, Adam Ward's daughter forced herself to do this thing that had so unexpectedly fallen to her.
For some minutes she walked the floor, listening to the noises of the neighborhood. Anxiously she opened the door and looked out into the fast, gathering darkness. No one of her own people knew where she was. She had heard terrible things of Jake Vodell and his creed of terrorism. McIver had pressed it upon her mind that the strikers were all alike in their lawlessness. What if Sam Whaley should return to find her there? She listened--listened.
A faint, moaning sound came from the next room. She went quickly to the doorway, but in the faint light she could see only the shadowy outline of a bed. Taking the lamp she entered fearfully.
Save for the bed, an old box that served as a table, and one chair, this room was as bare as the other. With the lamp in her hand Helen stood beside the bed.
The tiny form of little Maggie was lost under the ragged and dirty coverlet. The child's face in the tangled mass of her unkempt hair was so wasted and drawn, her eyes, closed under their dark lids, so deeply sunken, and her teeth so exposed by the thin fleshless lips, that she seemed scarcely human. One bony arm with its clawlike hand encircled the rag doll that she had held that day when Helen took the two children into the country.
As Helen looked all her fears vanished. She had no thought, now, of where she was or how she came there. Deep within her she felt the awakening of that mother soul which lives in every woman. She did not shrink in horror from this hideous fruit of Jake Vodell's activity. She did not cry out in pity or sorrow. She uttered no word of protest. As she put the lamp down on the box, her hand did not tremble. Very quietly she placed the chair beside the bed and sat down to watch and wait as motherhood in all ages has watched and waited.
While poor Sam Whaley was busy on some mission assigned to him by his leader, Jake Vodell, and his wife and boy were gone for the food supplied by a stranger to his household, this woman, of the class that he had been taught to hate, held alone her vigil at the bedside of the workman's little girl.
A thin, murmuring voice came from the bed. Helen leaned closer. She heard a few incoherent mutterings--then, "No--no--Bobby, yer wouldn't dast blow up the castle. Yer'd maybe kill the princess lady--yer know yer couldn't do that!"
Again the weak little voice sank into low, meaning less murmurs. The tiny, clawlike fingers plucked at the coverlet. "Tain't so, the princess lady will find her jewel of happiness, I tell yer, Bobby, jest like the Interpreter told us--cause her heart is kind--yer know her heart is--kind--kind--"
Silence again. Some one passed the house. A dog howled. A child in the house next door cried. Across the street a man's voice was raised in anger.
Suddenly little Maggie's eyes opened wide. "An' the princess lady is a-comin' some day to take Bobby and me away up in the sky to her beautiful palace place where there's flowers and birds an' everythin' all the time an'--an'--"
The big eyes were fixed on Helen's face as the' young woman stooped over the bed, and the light of a glorious smile transformed the wasted childish features.