The Helen of the Old House by Harold Bell Wright
Book III. The Strike
Chapter XXVI. At the Call of the Whistle
Everywhere in Millsburgh the shooting of Captain Charlie was the one topic of conversation. As the patrons of the cigar stand came and went they talked with the philosopher of nothing else. The dry-goods pessimist delivered his dark predictions to a group of his fellow citizens and listened with grave shakes of his head to the counter opinions of the real-estate agent. The grocer questioned the garage man and the lawyer discussed the known details of the tragedy with the postmaster, the hotel keeper and the politician. The barber asked the banker for his views and reviewed the financier's opinion to the judge while a farmer and a preacher listened. The milliner told her customers about it and the stenographer discussed it with the bookkeeper. In the homes, on the streets, and, later in the day, throughout the country, the shock of the crime was felt.
Meanwhile, the efforts of the police to find the assassin were fruitless. The most careful search revealed nothing in the nature of a clew.
Millsburgh had been very proud of Captain Martin and the honors he had won in France, as Millsburgh was proud of Adam Ward and his success--only with a different pride. The people had known Charlie from his birth, as they had known his father and mother all their years. There had been nothing in the young workman's life--as every one remarked--to lead to such an end.
It is doubtful if in the entire community there was a single soul that did not secretly or openly think of the tragedy as being in some dark way an outcome of the strike. And, gradually, as the day passed, the conjectures, opinions and views crystallized into two opposing theories--each with its natural advocates.
One division of the people held that the deed was committed by some one of Jake Vodell's followers, because of the workman's known opposition to a sympathetic strike of the Mill workers' union. Captain Charlie's leadership of the Mill men was recognized by all, and it was conceded generally that it was his active influence, guided by the Interpreter's counsel, that was keeping John Ward's employees at work. Without the assistance of the Mill men the strike leader could not hope for victory. With Captain Charlie's personal influence no longer a factor, it was thought that the agitator might win the majority of the Mill workers and so force the union into line with the strikers.
This opinion was held by many of the business men and by the more thoughtful members of the unions, who had watched with grave apprehension the increasing bitterness of the agitator's hatred of Captain Charlie, because of the workman's successful opposition to his schemes.
The opposing theory, which was skillfully advanced by Jake Vodell himself and fostered by his followers, was that the mysterious assassin was an agent of McIver's and that the deed was committed for the very purpose of charging the strikers with the crime and thus turning public sympathy against them.
This view, so plausible to the minds of the strikers, prepared, as they were, by hardship and suffering, found many champions among the Mill men themselves. Not a few of those who had stood with Charlie in his opposition to the agitator and against their union joining the strike now spoke openly with bitter feeling against the employer class. The weeks of agitation--the constant pounding of Vodell's arguments--the steady fire of his oratory and the continual appeal to their class loyalty made it easy for them to stand with their fellow workmen, now that the issue was being so clearly forced.
So the lines of the industrial battle were drawn closer--the opposing forces were massed in more definite formation--the feeling was more intense and bitter. In the gloom and hush of the impending desperate struggle that was forced upon it by the emissary of an alien organization, this little American city waited the coming of the dark messenger to Captain Charlie. It was felt by all alike that the workman's death would precipitate the crisis.
And through it all the question most often asked was this, "Why was the workman, Charlie Martin, at the gate to Adam Ward's estate at that hour of the night?"
To this question no one ventured even the suggestion of a satisfactory answer.
All that long day Helen kept her watch beside the wounded man. Others were there in the room with her, but she seemed unconscious of their presence. She made no attempt, now, to hide her love. There was no pretense--no evasion. Openly, before them all, she silently acknowledged him--her man--and to his claim upon her surrendered herself without reserve.
James McIver called but she would not see him.
When they urged her to retire and rest, she answered always with the same words: "I must be here when he awakens--I must."
And they, loving her, understood.
It was as if the assassin's hand had torn aside the curtain of material circumstances and revealed suddenly the realities of their inner lives. They realized now that this man, who had in their old-house days won the first woman love of his girl playmate, had held that love against all the outward changes that had taken her from him. John and his mother knew, now, why Helen had never said "Yes" to Jim McIver. Peter Martin and Mary knew why, in Captain Charlie's heart, there had seemed to be no place for any woman save his sister.
At intervals the man on the bed moved uneasily, muttering low words and disconnected fragments of speech. Army words--some of them were--as if his spirit lived for the moment again in the fields of France. At other times the half-formed phrases were of his work--the strike--his home. Again he spoke his sister's name or murmured, "Father," or "John." But not once did Helen catch the word she longed to hear him speak. It was as if, even in his unconscious mental wanderings, the man still guarded the name that in secret he had held most dear.
Three times during the day he opened his eyes and looked about--wonderingly at first--then as though he understood. As one contented and at peace, he smiled and drifted again into the shadows. But now at times his hand went out toward her with a little movement, as though he were feeling for her in the dark.
About midnight he seemed to be sleeping so naturally that they persuaded Helen to rest. At daybreak she was again at her post.
Mrs. Ward and Mary had gone, in their turn, for an hour or two of sorely needed rest. Peter Martin was within call downstairs. John, who was watching with his sister, had left the room for the moment and Helen was at the bedside alone.
Suddenly through the quiet morning air came the deep-toned call of the Mill whistle.
As a soldier awakens at the sound of the morning bugle, Captain Charlie opened his eyes.
Instantly she was bending over him. As he looked up into her face she called his name softly. She saw the light of recognition come into his eyes. She saw the glory of his love.
"Helen," he said--and again, "Helen."
It was as if the death that claimed him had come also for her.
For the first time in many months the voice of the Mill was not heard by the Interpreter in his little hut on the cliff. Above the silent buildings the smoke cloud hung like a pall. From his wheel chair the old basket maker watched the long procession moving slowly down the hill.
There were no uniforms in that procession--no military band with muffled drums led that solemn march--no regimental colors in honor of the dead. There were no trappings of war--no martial ceremony. And yet, to the Interpreter, Captain Charlie died in the service of his country as truly as if he had been killed on the field of battle.
Long after the funeral procession had passed beyond his sight, the Interpreter sat there at the window, motionless, absorbed in thought. Twice silent Billy came to stand beside his chair, but he did not heed. His head was bowed. His great shoulders stooped. His hands were idle.
There was a sound of some one knocking at the door.
The Interpreter did not hear.
The sound was repeated, and this time he raised his head questioningly.
Again it came and the old basket maker called, "Come in."
The door opened. Jim McIver entered.