The Helen of the Old House by Harold Bell Wright
Book III. The Strike
Chapter XXV. McIver's Opportunity
When the politician stopped at the cigar stand late that afternoon for a box of the kind he gave his admirers, the philosopher, scratching the revenue label, remarked, "I see by the papers that McIver is still a-stayin'."
"Humph!" grunted the politician with careful diplomacy.
The bank clerk who was particular about his pipe tobacco chimed in, "McIver is a stayer all right when it comes to that."
"Natural born fighter, sir," offered the politician tentatively.
"Game sport, McIver is," agreed the undertaker, taking the place at the show case vacated by the departing bank clerk.
The philosopher, handing out the newcomer's favorite smoke, echoed his customer's admiration. "You bet he's a game sport." He punched the cash register with vigor. "Don't give a hang what it costs the other fellow."
The undertaker laughed.
"I remember one time," said the philosopher, "McIver and a bunch was goin' fishin' up the river. They stopped here early in the morning and while they was gettin' their smokes the judge--who's always handin' out some sort of poetry stuff, you know--he says: 'Well, Jim, we're goin' to have a fine day anyway. No matter whether we catch anything or not it will be worth the trip just to get out into the country.' Mac, he looked at the judge a minute as if he wanted to bite him--you know what I mean--then he says in that growlin' voice of his, 'That may do for you all right, judge, but I'm here to tell you that when I go fishin' I go for fish.'"
The cigar-store philosopher's story accurately described the dominant trait in the factory man's character. To him business was a sport, a game, a contest of absorbing interest. He entered into it with all the zest and strength of his virile manhood. Mind and body, it absorbed him. And yet, he knew nothing of that true sportsman's passion which plays the game for the joy of the game itself. McIver played to win; not for the sake of winning, but for the value of the winnings. Methods were good or bad only as they won or lost. He was incapable of experiencing those larger triumphs which come only in defeat. The Interpreter's philosophy of the "oneness of all" was to McIver the fanciful theory of an impracticable dreamer, who, too feeble to take a man's part in life, contented himself by formulating creeds of weakness that befitted his state. Men were the pieces with which he played his game--they were of varied values, certainly, as are the pieces on a chess table, but they were pieces on the chess table and nothing more. All of which does not mean that Jim McIver was cruel or unkind. Indeed, he was genuinely and generously interested in many worthy charities, and many a man had appealed to him, and not in vain, for help. But to have permitted these humanitarian instincts to influence his play in the game of business would have been, to his mind, evidence of a weakness that was contemptible. The human element, he held, must, of necessity, be sternly disregarded if one would win.
While his fellow townsmen were discussing him at the cigar stand, and men everywhere in Millsburgh were commenting on his determination to break the strikers to his will at any cost, McIver, at his office, was concluding a conference with a little company of his fellow employers.
It was nearly dark when the conference finally ended and the men went their several ways. McIver, with some work of special importance waiting his attention, telephoned that he would not be home for dinner. He would finish what he had to do and would dine at the club later in the evening.
The big factory inside the high, board fence was silent. The night came on. Save for the armed men who guarded the place, the owner was alone.
Absorbed in his consideration of the business before him, the man was oblivious of everything but his game. An hour went by. He forgot that he had had no dinner. Another hour--and another.
He was interrupted at last by the entrance of a guard.
"Well, what do you want?" he said, shortly, when the man stood before him.
"There's a woman outside, sir. She insists that she must see you."
"Who is she?"
"I don't know."
"Well, what does she look like?"
"I couldn't see her face, she's got a veil on."
The factory owner considered. How did any one outside of his home know that he was in his office at that hour? These times were dangerous. "Vodell is likely to try anything," he said, aloud. "Better send her about her business."
"I tried to," the guard returned, "but she won't go--says she is a friend of yours and has got to see you to-night."
"A friend! Huh! How did she get here?"
"In a taxi, and the taxi beat it as soon as she got out."
Again McIver considered. Then his heavy jaw set, and he growled, "All right, bring her in--a couple of you--and see that you stand by while she is here. If this is a Vodell trick of some sort, I'll beat him to it."
Helen, escorted by two burly guards, entered the office.
McIver sprang to his feet with an exclamation of amazement, and his tender concern was unfeigned and very comforting to the young woman after the harrowing experience through which she had just passed.
Sending the guards back to their posts, he listened gravely while she told him where she had been and what she had seen.
"But, Helen," he cried, when she had finished, "it was sheer madness for you to be alone in the Flats like that--at Whaley's place and in the night, too! Good heavens, girl, don't you realize what a risk you were taking?"
"I had to go, Jim," she returned.
"You had to go?" he repeated. "Why?"
"I had to see for myself if--if things were as bad as the Interpreter said. Oh, can't you understand, Jim, I could not believe it--it all seemed so impossible. Don't you see that I had to know for sure?"
"I see that some one ought to break that meddlesome old basket maker's head as well as his legs," growled McIver indignantly. "The idea of sending you, Adam Ward's daughter, of all people, alone into that nest of murdering anarchists."
"But the Interpreter didn't send me, Jim," she protested. "He did not even know that I was going. No one knew."
"I understand all that," said McIver. "The Interpreter didn't send you--oh, no--he simply made you think that you ought to go. That's the way the tricky old scoundrel does everything, from what I am told."
She looked at him steadily. "Do you think, Jim, the Interpreter's way is such a bad way to get people to do things?"
"Forgive me," he begged humbly, "but it makes me wild to think what might have happened to you. It's all right now, though. I'll take you home, and in the future you can turn such work over to the regular charity organizations." He was crossing the room for his hat and overcoat. "Jove! I can't believe yet that you have actually been in such a mess and all by your lonesome, too."
She was about to speak when he stopped, and, as if struck by a sudden thought, said, quickly, "But Helen, you haven't told me--how did you know I was here?"
She explained hurriedly, "The doctor sent a taxi for me and I telephoned your house from a drug store. Your man told me you expected to be late at the office and would dine at the club. I phoned the club and when I learned that you were not there I came straight on. I--I had to see you to-night, Jim. And I was afraid if I phoned you here at the office you wouldn't let me come."
McIver evidently saw from her manner that there was still something in the amazing situation that they had not yet touched upon. Coming back to his desk, he said, "I don't think I understand, Helen. Why were you in such a hurry to see me? Besides, don't you know that I would have gone to you, at once, anywhere?"
"I know, Jim," she returned, slowly, as one approaching a difficult subject, "but I couldn't tell you what I had seen. I couldn't talk to you about these things at home."
"I understand," he said, gently, "and I am glad that you wanted to come to me. But you are tired and nervous and all unstrung, now. Let me take you home and to-morrow we will talk things over."
As if he had not spoken, she said, steadily, "I wanted to tell you about the terrible, terrible condition of those poor people, Jim. I thought you ought to know about them exactly as they are and not in a vague, indefinite way as I knew about them before I went to see for myself."
The man moved uneasily. "I do know about the condition of these people, Helen. It is exactly what I expected would happen."
She was listening carefully. "You expected them to--to be hungry and cold and sick like that, Jim?"
"Such conditions are always a part of every strike like this," he returned. "There is nothing unusual about it, and it is the only thing that will ever drive these cattle back to their work. They simply have to be starved to it."
"But John says--"
He interrupted. "Please, Helen--I know all about what John says. I know where he gets it, too--he gets it from the Interpreter who gave you this crazy notion of going alone into the Flats to investigate personally. And John's ideas are just about as practical."
"But the mothers and children, Jim?"
"The men can go back to work whenever they are ready," he retorted.
"At your terms, you mean?" she asked.
"My terms are the only terms that will ever open this plant again. The unions will never dictate my business policies, if every family in Millsburgh starves."
She waited a moment before she said, slowly, "I must be sure that I understand, Jim--do you mean that you are actually depending upon such pitiful conditions as I have seen to-night to give you a victory over the strikers?"
The man made a gesture of impatience. "It is the principle of the thing that is at stake, Helen. If I yield in this instance it will be only the beginning of a worse trouble. If the working class wins this time there will be no end to their demands. We might as well turn all our properties over to them at once and be done with it. This strike in Millsburgh is only a small part of the general industrial situation. The entire business interests of the country are involved."
Again she waited a little before answering. Then she said, sadly, "How strange! It is hard for me to realize, Jim, that the entire business interests of this great nation are actually dependent upon the poor little Maggie Whaleys."
"Helen!" he protested, "you make me out a heartless brute."
"No, Jim, I know you are not that. But when you insist that what I saw to-night--that the suffering of these poor, helpless mothers and their children is the only thing that will enable you employers to break this strike and save the business of the country--it--it does seem a good deal like the Germans' war policy of frightfulness that we all condemned so bitterly, doesn't it?"
"These things are not matters of sentiment, Helen. Jake Vodell is not conducting his campaign by the Golden Rule."
"I know, Jim, but I could not go to Jake Vodell as I have come to you--could I? And I could not talk to the poor, foolish strikers who are so terribly deceived by him. Don't you suppose, Jim, that most of the strikers think they are right?"
The man stirred uneasily. "I can't help what they think. I can consider only the facts as they are."
"That is just what I want, Jim," she cried. "Only it seems to me that you are leaving out some of the most important facts. I can't help believing that if our great captains of industry and kings of finance and teachers of economics and labor leaders would consider all the facts they could find some way to settle these differences between employers and employees and save the industries of the country without starving little girls and boys and their mothers."
"If I could have my way the government would settle the difficulty in a hurry," he said, grimly.
"You mean the soldiers?"
"Yes, the government should put enough troops from the regular army in here to drive these men back to their jobs."
"But aren't these working people just as much a part of our government as you employers? Forgive me, Jim, but your plan sounds to me too much like the very imperialism that our soldiers fought against in France."
"Imperialism or not!" he retorted, "the business men of this country will never submit to the dictatorship of Jake Vodell and his kind. It would be chaos and utter ruin. Look what they are doing in other countries."
"Of course it would," she agreed, "but the Interpreter says that if the business men and employers and the better class of employees like Peter Martin would get together as--as John and Charlie Martin are--that Jake Vodell and his kind would be powerless."
He did not answer, and she continued, "As I understand brother and the Interpreter, this man Vodell does not represent the unions at all--he merely uses some of the unions, wherever he can, through such men as Sam Whaley. Isn't that so, Jim?"
"Whether it is so or not, the result is the same," he answered. "If the unions of the laboring classes permit themselves to be used as tools by men like Jake Vodell they must take the consequences."
He rose to his feet as one who would end an unprofitable discussion. "Come, Helen, it is useless for you to make yourself ill over these questions. You are worn out now. Come, you really must let me take you home."
"I suppose I must," she answered, wearily.
He went to her. "It is wonderful for you to do what you have done to-night, and for you to come to me like this. Helen--won't you give me my answer--won't you--?"
She put out her hands with a little gesture of protest. "Please, Jim, let's not talk about ourselves to-night. I--I can't."
Silently he turned away to take up his hat and coat. Silently she stood waiting.
But when he was ready, she said, "Jim, there is just one thing more."
"What is it, Helen?"
"Tell me truly: you could stop this strike, couldn't you? I mean if you would come to some agreement with your factory men, all the others would go back to work, too, wouldn't they?"
"Yes," he said, "I could."
She hesitated--then falteringly, "Jim, if I--if I promise to be your wife will you--will you stop the strike? For the sake of the mothers and children who are cold and hungry and sick, Jim--will you--will you stop the strike?"
For a long minute, Jim McIver could not answer. He wanted this woman as a man of his strength wants the woman he has chosen. At the beginning of their acquaintance his interest in Helen had been largely stimulated by the business possibilities of a combination of his factory and Adam Ward's Mill. But as their friendship had grown he had come to love her sincerely, and the more material consideration of their union had faded into the background. Men like McIver, who are capable of playing their games of business with such intensity and passion, are capable of great and enduring love. They are capable, too, of great sacrifices to principle. As he considered her words and grasped the full force of her question his face went white and his nerves were tense with the emotional strain.
At last he said, gently, "Helen, dear, I love you. I want you for my wife. I want you more than I ever wanted anything. Nothing in the world is of any value to me compared with your love. But, dear girl, don't you see that I can't take you like this? You cannot sell yourself to me--even for such a price. I cannot buy you." He turned away.
"Forgive me, Jim," she cried. "I did not realize what I was saying. I--I was thinking of little Maggie--I--I know you would not do what you are doing if you did not think you were right. Take me home now, please, Jim."
* * * * *
Silently they went out to his automobile. Tenderly he helped her into the car and tucked the robe about her. The guards swung open the big gates, and they swept away into the night. Past the big Mill and the Flats, through the silent business district and up the hill they glided swiftly--steadily. And no word passed between them.
They were nearing the gate to the Ward estate when Helen suddenly grasped her companion's arm with a low exclamation.
At the same moment McIver instinctively checked the speed of his car.
They had both seen the shadowy form of a man walking slowly past the entrance to Helen's home.
To Helen, there was something strangely familiar in the dim outlines of the moving figure. As they drove slowly on, passing the man who was now in the deeper shadows of the trees and bushes which, at this spot grew close to the fence, she turned her head, keeping her eyes upon him.
Suddenly a flash of light stabbed the darkness. A shot rang out. And another.
Helen saw the man she was watching fall.
With a cry, she started from her seat; and before McIver, who had involuntarily stopped the car, could check her, she had leaped from her place beside him and was running toward the fallen man.
With a shout "Helen!" McIver followed.
As she knelt beside the form on the ground McIver put his hand on her shoulder. "Helen," he said, sharply, as if to bring her to her senses, "you must not--here, let me--"
Without moving from her position she turned her face up to him. "Don't you understand, Jim? It is Captain Charlie."
Two watchmen on the Ward estate, who had heard the shots, came running up.
McIver tried to insist that Helen go with him in his roadster to the house for help and a larger car, but she refused.
When he returned with John, the chauffeur and one of the big Ward machines, after telephoning the police and the doctor, Helen was kneeling over the wounded man just as he had left her.
She did not raise her head when they stood beside her and seemed unconscious of their presence. But when John lifted her up and she heard her brother's voice, she cried out and clung to him like a frightened child.
The doctor arrived just as they were carrying Captain Charlie into the room to which Mrs. Ward herself led them. The police came a moment later.
While the physician, with John's assistance, was caring for his patient, McIver gave the officers what information he could and went with them to the scene of the shooting.
He returned to the house after the officers had completed their examination of the spot and the immediate vicinity just in time to meet John, who was going out. Helen and her mother were with the doctor at the bedside of the assassin's victim.
McIver wondered at the anguish in John Ward's face. But Captain Charlie's comrade only asked, steadily, "Did the police find anything, Jim?"
"Not a thing," McIver answered. "What does the doctor say, John?"
John turned away as if to hide his emotion and for a moment did not answer. Then he spoke those words so familiar to the men of Flanders' fields, "Charlie is going West, Jim. I must bring his father and sister. Would you mind waiting here until I return? Something might develop, you know."
"Certainly, I will stay, John--anything that I can do--command me, won't you?"
"Thank you, Jim--I'll not be long."
* * * * *
While he waited there alone, Jim McIver's mind went back over the strange incidents of the evening: Helen's visit to the Whaley home and her coming to him. Swiftly he reviewed their conversation. What was it that had so awakened Helen's deep concern for the laboring class? He had before noticed her unusual interest in the strike and in the general industrial situation--but to-night--he had never dreamed that she would go so far. Why had she continued to refuse an answer to his pleading? What was Charlie Martin doing in that neighborhood at that hour? How had Helen recognized him so quickly and surely in the darkness? The man, as these and many other unanswerable questions crowded upon him, felt a strange foreboding. Mighty forces beyond his understanding seemed stirring about him. As one feels the gathering of a storm in the night, he felt the mysterious movements of elements beyond his control.
He was disturbed suddenly by the opening of an outer door behind him. Turning quickly, he faced Adam Ward.
Before McIver could speak, the Mill owner motioned him to be silent.
Wondering, McIver obeyed and watched with amazement as the master of that house closed the door with cautious care and stole softly toward him. To his family Adam Ward's manner would not have appeared so strange, but McIver had never seen the man under one of his attacks of nervous excitement.
"I'm glad you are here, Jim," Adam said, in a shaking whisper. "You understand these things. John is a fool--he don't believe when I tell him they are after us. But you know what to do. You have the right idea about handling these unions. Kill the leaders; and if the men won't work, turn the soldiers loose on them. You said the right thing, 'Drive them to their jobs with bayonets.' Pete Martin's boy was one of them, and he got what was coming to him to-night. And John and Helen brought him right here into my house. They've got him upstairs there now. They think I'll stand for it, but you'll see--I'll show them! What was he hanging around my place for in the night like this? I know what he was after. But he got what he wasn't looking for this time and Pete will get his too, if he--"
Unnoticed, Helen had come into the room behind them. In pacing the open door she had seen her father and had realized instantly his condition. But the little she had heard him say was not at all unusual to her, and she attached no special importance to his words.
Adam Ward was like a child, abashed in her presence.
She looked at McIver appealingly. "Father is excited and nervous, Jim. He is not at all well, you know."
McIver spoke with gentle authority, "If you will permit me, I will go with him to his room for a little quiet talk. And then, perhaps, he can sleep. What do you say, Mr. Ward?"
"Yes--yes," agreed Adam, hurriedly.
Helen looked her gratitude and McIver led the Mill owner away.
When they were in Adam's own apartment and the door was shut McIver's manner changed with startling abruptness. With all the masterful power of his strong-willed nature he faced his trembling host, and his heavy voice was charged with the force of his dominating personality.
"Listen to me, Adam Ward. You must stop this crazy nonsense. If you act and talk like this the police will have the handcuffs on you before you know where you are."
Adam cringed before him. "Jim--I--I--do they think that I--"
"Shut up!" growled McIver. "I don't want to hear another word. I have heard too much now. Charlie Martin stays right here in this house and your family will give him every attention. His father and sister will be here, too, and you'll not open your mouth against them. Do you understand?"
"Yes--yes," whispered the now thoroughly frightened Adam.
"Don't you dare even to speak to Mrs. Ward or John or Helen as you have to me. And for God's sake pull yourself together and remember--you don't know any more than the rest of us about this business--you were in your room when you heard the shots."
"Yes, of course, Jim--but I--I--"
"Shut up! You are not to talk, I tell you--even to me."
Adam Ward whimpered like a child.
For another moment McIver glared at him; then, "Don't forget that I saw this affair and that I went over the ground with the police. I'm going back downstairs now. You go to bed where you belong and stay there."
He turned abruptly and left the room.
But as he went down the stairway McIver drew his handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the perspiration from his brow.
"What in God's name," he asked himself, "did Adam Ward's excited fears mean? What terrible thing gave birth to his mad words? What awful pattern was this that the unseen forces were weaving? And what part was he, with his love for Helen, destined to fill in it all?" That his life was being somehow woven into the design he felt certain--but how and to what end? And again the man in all his strength felt that dread foreboding.
* * * * *
When Peter Martin and his daughter arrived with John at the big house on the hill, Mrs. Ward met them at the door.
The old workman betrayed no consciousness of the distance the years of Adam Ward's material prosperity had placed between these two families that in the old-house days had lived in such intimacy.
Mary hesitated. It must have been that to the girl, who saw it between herself and the happy fulfillment of her womanhood, the distance seemed even greater than it actually was.
But her hesitation was only for an instant. One full look into the gentle face that was so marked by the years of uncomplaining disappointment and patient unhappiness and Mary knew that in the heart of John Ward's mother the separation had brought no change. In the arms of her own mother's dearest friend the young woman found, even as a child, the love she needed to sustain her in that hour.
When they entered the room where Captain Charlie lay unconscious, Helen rose from her watch beside the bed and held out her hands to her girlhood playmate. And in her gesture there was a full surrender--a plea for pardon. Humbly she offered--lovingly she invited--while she held her place beside the man who was slowly passing into that shadow where all class forms are lost, as if she claimed the right before a court higher than the petty courts of human customs. No word was spoken--no word was needed. The daughter of Peter Martin and the daughter of Adam Ward knew that the bond of their sisterhood was sealed.
In that wretched home in the Flats, little Maggie Whaley smiled in her sleep as she dreamed of her princess lady.
The armed guards at their stations around McIver's dark and silent factory kept their watch.
The Mill, under the cloud of smoke, sang the deep-voiced song of its industry as the night shift carried on.
In the room back of the pool hall, Jake Vodell whispered with two of his disciples.
In the window of the Interpreter's hut on the cliff a lamp gleamed starlike above the darkness below.