The Helen of the Old House by Harold Bell Wright
Book III. The Strike
Chapter XXVII. Jake Vodell's Mistake
Since that night of the tragedy McIver had struggled to grasp the hidden meaning of the strange series of incidents. But the more he tried to understand, the more he was confused and troubled. Nor had he been able, strong-willed as he was, to shake off the feeling that he was in the midst of unseen forces--that about him mysterious influences were moving steadily to some fixed and certain end.
In constant touch, through his agents, with the strike situation, he had watched the swiftly forming sentiment of the public. He knew that the turning point of the industrial war was near. He did not deceive himself. He knew Jake Vodell's power. He knew the temper of the strikers. He saw clearly that if the assassin who killed Captain Charlie was not speedily discovered the community would suffer under a reign of terror such as the people had never conceived. And, what was of more vital importance to McIver, perhaps, if the truth was not soon revealed, Jake Vodell's charges that the murder was inspired by McIver himself would become, in the minds of many, an established fact. With the full realization of all that would result to the community and to himself if the identity of the murderer was not soon established, McIver was certain in his own mind that he alone knew the guilty man.
To reveal what he believed to be the truth of the tragedy would be to save the community and himself--and to lose, for all time, the woman he loved. McIver did not know that through the tragedy Helen was already lost to him.
In his extremity the factory owner had come at last to the man who was said to wield such a powerful influence over the minds of the people. He had never before seen the interior of that hut on the cliff nor met the man who for so many years had been confined there. Standing just outside the door, he looked curiously about the room with the unconscious insolence of his strength.
The man in the wheel chair did not speak. When Billy looked at him he signaled his wishes in their silent language, and, watching his visitor, waited.
For a long moment McIver gazed at the old basket maker as if estimating his peculiar strength, then he said with an unintentional touch of contempt in his heavy voice, "So you are the Interpreter."
"And you," returned the man in the wheel chair, gently, "are McIver."
McIver was startled. "How did you know my name?"
"Is McIver's name a secret also?" came the strange reply.
McIver's eyes flashed with a light that those who sat opposite him in the game of business had often seen. With perfect self-control he said, coolly, "I have been told often that I should come to see you but--" he paused and again looked curiously about the room.
The Interpreter, smiling, caught up the unfinished sentence. "But you do not see how an old, poverty-stricken and crippled maker of baskets can be of any use to you."
McIver spoke as one measuring his words. "They tell me you help people who are in trouble."
"Are you then in trouble?" asked the Interpreter, kindly.
The other did not answer, and the man in the wheel chair continued, still kindly, "What trouble can the great and powerful McIver have? You have never been hungry--you have never felt the cold--you have no children to starve--no son to be killed."
"I suppose you hold me personally responsible for the strike and for all the hardships that the strikers have brought upon themselves and their families?" said McIver. "You fellows who teach this brotherhood-of-man rot and never have more than one meal ahead yourselves always blame men like me for all the suffering in the world."
The Interpreter replied with a dignity that impressed even McIver. "Who am I that I should assume to blame any one? Who are you, sir, that assume the power implied by either your acceptance or your denial of the responsibility? You are only a part of the whole, as I am a part. You, in your life place, are no less a creature of circumstances--an accident--than I, here in my wheel chair--than Jake Vodell. We are all--you and I, Jake Vodell, Adam Ward, Peter Martin, Sam Whaley--we are all but parts of the great oneness of life. The want, the misery, the suffering, the unhappiness of humanity is of that unity no less than is the prosperity, peace and happiness of the people. Before we can hope to bring order out of this industrial chaos we must recognize our mutual dependence upon the whole and acknowledge the equality of our guilt in the wretched conditions that now exist."
As the Interpreter spoke, James McIver again felt the movement of those unseen forces that were about him. His presence in that little hut on the cliff seemed, now, a part of some plan that was not of his making. He was awed by the sudden conviction that he had not come to the Interpreter of his own volition, but had been led there by something beyond his understanding.
"Why should your fellow workmen not hate you, sir?" continued the old basket maker. "You hold yourself apart, superior, of a class distinct and separate. Your creed of class is intolerance. Your very business policy is a declaration of class war. Your boast that you can live without the working people is madness. You can no more live without them than they can live without you. You can no more deny the mutual dependence of employer and employee with safety to yourself than Samson of old could pull down the pillars of the temple without being himself buried in the ruins."
By an effort of will McIver strove to throw off the feeling that possessed him. He spoke as one determined to assert himself. "We cannot recognize the rights of Jake Vodell and his lawless followers to dictate to us in our business. It would mean ruin, not only of our industries, but of our government."
"Exactly so," agreed the Interpreter. "And yet, sir, you claim for yourself the right to live by the same spirit of imperialism that animates Vodell. You make the identical class distinction that he makes. You appeal to the same class intolerance and hatred. You and Jake Vodell have together brought about this industrial war in Millsburgh. The community itself--labor unions and business men alike--is responsible for tolerating the imperialism that you and this alien agitator, in opposition to each other, advocate. The community is paying the price."
The factory owner flushed. "Of course you would say these things to Jake Vodell."
"I do," returned the Interpreter, gently.
"Oh, you are in touch with him then?"
"He comes here sometimes. He is coming this afternoon--at four o'clock. Will you not stay and meet him, Mr. McIver?" McIver hesitated. He decided to ignore the invitation. With more respect in his manner than he had so far shown, he said, courteously, "May I ask why Jake Vodell comes to you?"
The Interpreter replied, sadly, as one who accepts the fact of his failure, "For the same reason that McIver came."
McIver started with surprise. "You know why I came to you?"
The man in the wheel chair looked steadily into his visitor's eyes. "I know that you are not personally responsible for the death of the workman, Captain Martin."
McIver sprang to his feet. He fairly gasped as the flood of questions raised by the Interpreter's words swept over him.
"You--you know who killed Charlie Martin?" he demanded at last.
The old basket maker did not answer.
"If you know," cried McIver, "why in God's name do you not tell the people? Surely, sir, you are not ignorant of the danger that threatens this community. The death of this union man has given Vodell just the opportunity he needed and he is using it. If you dare to shield the guilty man--whoever he is--you will--"
"Peace, McIver! This community will not be plunged into the horrors of a class war such as you rightly fear. There are yet enough sane and loyal American citizens in Millsburgh to extinguish the fire that you and Jake Vodell have started."
* * * * *
When Jake Vodell came to the Interpreter's hut shortly after McIver had left, he was clearly in a state of nervous excitement.
"Well," he said, shortly, "I am here--what do you want--why did you send for me?"
The Interpreter spoke deliberately with his eyes fixed upon the dark face of the agitator. "Vodell, I have told you twice that your campaign in Millsburgh was a failure. Your coming to this community was a mistake. Your refusal to recognize the power of the thing that made your defeat certain was a mistake. You have now made your third and final mistake."
"A mistake! Hah--that is what you think. You do not know. I tell you that I have turned a trick that will win for me the game. Already the people are rallying to me. I have put McIver at last in a hole from which he will not escape. The Mill workers are ready now to do anything I say. You will see--to-morrow I will have these employers and all their capitalist class eating out of my hand. To me they shall beg for mercy. I--I will dictate the terms to them and they will pay. You may take my word--they will pay."
The man paced to and fro with the triumphant air of a conqueror, and his voice rang with his exultation.
"No, Jake Vodell," said the Interpreter, calmly. "You are deceiving yourself. Your dreams are as vain as your mistake is fatal."
The man faced the old basket maker suddenly, as if arrested by a possible meaning in the Interpreter's words that had not at first caught his attention.
"And what is this mistake that I have made?" he growled.
The answer came with solemn portent. "You have killed the wrong man."
The agitator was stunned. His mouth opened as if he would speak, but no word came from his trembling lips. He drew back as if to escape.
The old man in the wheel chair continued, sadly, "I am the one you should have killed--I am the cause of your failure to gain the support of the Mill workers' union."
The strike leader recovered himself with a shrug of his heavy shoulders.
"So that is it," he sneered; "you would accuse me of shooting your Captain Charlie, heh?"
"You have accused yourself, sir."
"By the use you are making of Captain Charlie's death. If you did not know who committed the crime--if you did not feel sure that the identity of the assassin would remain a mystery to the people--you would not dare risk charging the employers with it."
With an oath the other returned, "I tell you that McIver or his hired gunmen did it so they could lay the blame on the strikers and so turn the Mill workers' union against us. That is what the Mill men believe."
"That is what you want them to believe. It is an old trick, Vodell. You have used it before."
The agitator's eyes narrowed under his scowling brows. "Look here," he growled, "I do not like this talk of yours. Perhaps you had better prove what you charge, heh?"
"Please God, I will prove it," came the calm answer.
Jake Vodell, as he looked down upon the seemingly helpless old man in the wheel chair, was thinking, "It would be safer if this old basket maker were not permitted to speak these things to others--his influence, after all, is a thing to consider."
"No, Jake Vodell," said the Interpreter gently, "you won't do it. Billy Rand is watching us. If you make a move to do what you are thinking, Billy will kill you."
The Interpreter raised his hand and his silent companion came quickly to stand beside his chair.
With a shrug of his shoulders Vodell drew back a few steps toward the door.
"Bah! Why should I waste my time with a crippled old basket maker--I have work to do. If you watch from the window of your shanty you will see to-morrow whether or not the Mill workers are with me. I will make for you a demonstration that will be known through the country. I told you at the first that the working people would find out who is their friend. Now you shall see what they will do to the enemies of their class. Who can say, Mr. Interpreter, perhaps your miserable hut so high up here would make a good torch to signal the beginning of the show, heh?"
When the door had closed behind Jake Vodell, the Interpreter said, aloud, "So he has set to-morrow night for his demonstration. We must work fast, Billy--there is no time to lose."
With his hands he asked his companion for paper and pencil. When Billy brought them he wrote a few words and folding the message gave it to the big man who stood waiting.
For a few minutes they talked together in their silent way. Then Billy Rand put the Interpreter's message carefully in his pocket and hurriedly left the hut.
* * * * *
That evening Jake Vodell addressed the largest crowd that had yet assembled at his street meetings. With characteristic eloquence the agitator pictured Captain Charlie as a martyr to the unprincipled schemes of the employer class.
"McIver and his crew are charging the strikers with this crime in order to set our union brothers against us," he shouted. "They think that by setting up a division among us they can win. They know that if the working people stand together, true to their class, loyal to their comrades, they will rule the world. Why don't the police produce the murderer of Captain Charlie? I will tell you the answer, my brother workmen: it is because the law and the officers of the law are under the control of those who do not want the murderer produced--that is why. They dare not produce him. The life of a poor working man--what is that to these masters of crime who acknowledge no law but the laws they make for themselves. You workers have no laws. A slave knows no justice but the whim of his master. Think of the mothers and children in your homes--you slaves who create the wealth of your lords and masters. And now they have taken the life of one of your truest and most loyal union leaders. Where will they stop? If you do not stand like men against these cruel outrages what have you to hope for? You know as well as I that no workman in Millsburgh would raise his hand against such a fellow worker as Captain Charlie Martin."
While the agitator was speaking, Billy Rand moved quickly here and there through the crowd, as if searching for some one.
After the mass meeting on the street there was a meeting of the Mill workers' union.
Later, Vodell's inner circle met in the room back of Dago Bill's pool hall.
It was midnight when Billy Rand finally returned to the waiting Interpreter.
Evidently he had failed in the mission entrusted to him by the old basket maker.
The next morning, Billy Rand again went forth with the Interpreter's message.