The Helen of the Old House by Harold Bell Wright
Book III. The Strike
Chapter XXVIII. The Mob and the Mill
On the morning following the day of the funeral scarcely half of the usual force of workmen appeared at the Mill. The men who did choose to work were forced to pass a picket line of strikers who with jeers and threats and arguments sought to turn them from their purpose.
The death of Captain Charlie, by defining more clearly the two lines of public sentiment, had increased Jake Vodell's strength materially, but the Mill workers' union had not yet officially declared for the sympathetic strike that would deliver the community wholly into the hands of the agitator. The Mill men, who were still opposed to Jake Vodell's leadership and coolly refused to hold the employers guilty of the death of Captain Charlie upon the mere unsupported assertions of the strike leader, were therefore free to continue their work. This action of the members of the Mill workers' union who were loyal to John, however, quite naturally increased the feeling of their comrades who had accepted Vodell's version of the murder. Thus, the final crisis of the industrial battle centered about the Mill.
Every hour that John Ward could keep the Mill running lessened Vodell's chances of final victory. The strike leader knew that if these days immediately following Captain Charlie's death passed without closing the Mill, his cause was lost. The workmen were now aroused to the highest pitch of excitement. The agitator realized that if they were not committed by some action to his cause before the fever of their madness began to abate, his followers would, day by day, in ever increasing numbers go back to work under John. The successful operation of the Mill was a demonstration to the public that Vodell's campaign against the employers was not endorsed by the better and stronger element of employees. To the mind of the strike leader a counter demonstration was imperative. To that immediate end the man now bent every effort.
All day the members of the agitator's inner circle were active. When evening came, a small company of men gathered in a vacant store building not far from the Mill. There was little talk among them. When one did speak it was to utter a mere commonplace or perhaps to greet some newcomer. They were as men who meet at a given place by agreement to carry out some definite and carefully laid plan. Moment by moment the company grew in numbers until the gathering assumed such proportions that it overflowed the building and filled the street. And now, scattered through the steadily growing crowd, the members of that inner circle were busy with exhortations and arguments preparing the workmen for what was to follow.
Presently from the direction of the strike headquarters came another company with Jake Vodell himself in their midst. These had assembled at the strike headquarters. Without pausing they swept on down the street toward the Mill, taking with them the crowd that was waiting at the old store. Scarcely had they reached the front of the large main building when they were joined by still another crowd that had been gathering in the neighborhood of McIver's factory. Thus, with startling suddenness, a great company of workmen was assembled at the Mill.
But a large part of that company had yet to be molded to Vodell's purpose. Many had gone to the designated places in response to the simple announcement that a labor meeting would be held there. Only those of the agitator's trusted inner circle had known of the plan to unite these smaller gatherings in one great mass meeting. Only these chosen few knew the real purpose of that meeting. There were hundreds of workmen in that throng who were opposed to Vodell and his methods, but they were unorganized, with no knowledge of the strike leader's plans. And so it had been easy for the members of that inner circle to lead these separate smaller gatherings to the larger assembly in front of the Mill.
To accomplish the full purpose of his demonstration against the employer class, the strike leader must make it appear to the public as the united action of the working people of Millsburgh. The requirements of his profession made Jake Vodell a master of mob psychology. With the leaven of his chosen inner circle and the temper of the many strikers whose nerves were already strained to the breaking point by their weeks of privation, the agitator was confident that he could bend the assembled multitude to his will. Those who were opposed to his leadership and to his methods--disorganized and taken by surprise as they were--would be helpless. At the same time their presence in the mob would appear to give their sanction and support to whatever was accomplished.
Quickly word of the gathering spread throughout the community. From every direction--from the Flats, from the neighborhood of the Martin home--and from the more distant parts of the city--men were moving toward the Mill. With every moment the crowd increased in size. Everywhere among the mass of men Vodell's helpers were busy.
A block away an automobile stopped at the curb in front of a deserted house. A man left the car, and, keeping well out of the light from the street lamps, walked swiftly to the outskirts of the mob. With his face hidden by the turned-up collar of his overcoat and the brim of his hat pulled low, he moved here and there in the thin edge of the multitude.
The agitator, standing on a goods box on the street opposite the big doors of the main Mill building, began his address. As one man, the hundreds of assembled workmen turned toward the leader of the strike. A hush fell over them. But there was one in that great crowd to whom the words of Jake Vodell meant nothing. Silent Billy Rand, pushing his way through the press of men, searched face after face with simple, untiring purpose.
A squad of police arrived. Vodell, calling attention to them, facetiously invited the guardians of the law to a seat of honor on the rostrum. The crowd laughed.
At that moment Billy Rand caught sight of the face he was seeking. When the Interpreter's messenger grasped his arm, the man, who was standing well back in the edge of the crowd, started with fear. Billy thrust the note into his hand. As he read the message he shook so that the paper rattled in his fingers. Helplessly he looked about. He seemed paralyzed with horror. Again Billy Rand grasped his arm and this time drew him aside, out of the crowd.
Helpless and shaken, the man made no effort to resist, as the Interpreter's deaf and dumb companion hurried him away down the street.
At the foot of the zigzag stairway Billy's charge sank down on the lower step, as if he had no strength to go on. Without a moment's pause Billy lifted him to his feet and almost carried him up the stairs and into the hut to place him, cowering and whimpering, before the man in the wheel chair.
* * * * *
John and Helen had gone to the Martin cottage that evening to spend an hour with the old workman and his daughter. They had just arrived when the telephone rang.
It was the watchman at the Mill. He had called John at the Ward home, and Mrs. Ward had directed him to call the cottage.
In a few words John told the others of the crowd at the Mill. He must go at once.
"But not alone, boy," said Peter Martin. "This is no more your job than 'tis mine."
As they were leaving, John said hurriedly to Helen, "Telephone Tom to come for you at once and take Mary home with you. Mother may need you, and Mary must not be left here alone. I'll bring Uncle Pete home with me."
A moment later the old workman and the general manager, in John's roadster, were on their way to the Mill.
When Tom arrived at the cottage with Helen's car the two young women were ready. They were entering the automobile when Billy Rand appeared. It was evident from his labored breathing that he had been running, but his face betrayed no excitement. With a pleased smile, as one who would say, "Luckily I got here just in time," he handed a folded paper to Mary.
By the light of the automobile lamp she read the Interpreter's message aloud to Helen."
"Telephone John to come to me at once with a big car. If you can't get John tell Helen."
For an instant they looked at each other questioningly. Then Helen spoke to the chauffeur. "To the Interpreter's, Tom." She indicated to Billy Rand that he was to go with them.
* * * * *
It was not Jake Vodell's purpose to call openly in his address to the assembled workmen for an attack on the Mill. Such a demonstration against the employer class was indeed the purpose of the gathering, but it must come as the spontaneous outburst from the men themselves. His speech was planned merely to lay the kindling for the fire. The actual lighting of the blaze would follow later. The conflagration, too, would be started simultaneously from so many different points in the crowd that no one individual could be singled out as having incited the riot.
The agitator was still speaking when John and Peter Martin arrived on the scene. Quietly and carefully John drove through the outskirts of the crowd to a point close to the wall and not far from the main door of the building, nearly opposite the speaker. Stopping the motor the two men sat in the car listening to Vodell's address.
The agitator did not call attention to the presence of the manager of the Mill as he had to the police, nor was there any noticeable break in his speech. But throughout the great throng there was a movement--a ripple of excitement--as the men looked toward John and the old workman, and turned each to his neighbor with low-spoken comments. And then, from every part of the crowd, the agitator saw individuals moving quietly toward the manager's car until between the two men in the automobile and the main body of the speaker's audience a small compact group of workmen stood shoulder to shoulder. They were the men of the Mill workers' union who had refused to follow Jake Vodell. And every man, as he took his place, greeted John and the old workman with a low word, or a nod and a smile. The agitator concluded his address, and amid the shouts and applause left his place on the goods box to move about among his followers.
Presently, a low murmur arose like a growling undertone. Now and then a voice was raised sharply in characteristic threat or epithet against the employer class. The murmur swelled into a heavy menacing roar. The crowd, shaken by some invisible inner force, swayed to and fro. A shrill yell rang out and at the signal scores of hoarse voices were raised in shouts of mad defiance--threats and calls for action. As the whirling waters of a maelstrom are drawn to the central point, the mob was massed before the doors of the Mill.
The little squad of police was struggling forward. John Ward sprang to his feet. The loyal union men about the car stood fast.
At the sound of the manager's voice the mob hesitated. In all that maddened crowd there was not a soul in ignorance of John Ward's comradeship with his fellow workmen. In spite of Jake Vodell's careful teaching--in spite of his devilish skill in using McIver as an example in his appeals and arguments inciting their hatred against all employers as a class, they were checked in their madness by the presence of Captain Charlie's friend.
But it was only for the moment. The members of Vodell's inner circle were at work among them. John had spoken but a few sentences when he was interrupted by voices from the crowd.
"Tell us where your old man got this Mill that he says is his?"
"Where did Adam get his castle on the hill?"
"We and our families live in shanties."
"Who paid for your automobile, John?"
"We and our children walk."
As the manager, ignoring the voices, continued his appeal, the interruptions came with more frequency, accompanied now by groans, shouts, hisses and derisive laughter.
"You're all right, John, but you're in with the wrong bunch."
"We're going to run things for a while now and give you a chance to do some real work."
The police pleaded with them. The mob jeered, "Go get a job with McIver's gunmen. Go find the man who murdered Captain Charlie."
Once more the growling undertones swelled into a roar. "Come on--come on--we've had enough talk--let's do something."
As the crowd surged again toward the Mill doors, there was a forward movement of the close-packed group of workmen about the ear. John, leaning over them, said, sharply, "No--no--not that--men, not that!"
Then suddenly the movement of the mob toward the Mill was again checked as Peter Martin raised his voice. "If you won't listen to Mr. Ward," said the old man, when he had caught their attention, "perhaps you'll not mind hearin' me."
In the stillness of the uncertain moment, a voice answered, "Go ahead, Uncle Pete!"
Standing on the seat of the automobile, the kindly old workman looked down into the grim faces of his comrades. And, as they saw him there and thought of Captain Charlie, a deep breath of feeling swept over the throng.
In his slow, thoughtful way the veteran of the Mill spoke. "There'll be no one among you, I'm thinkin', that'll dare say as how I don't belong to the workin' class. An' there'll be no man that'll deny my right to be heard in any meeting of Millsburgh working men. I helped the Interpreter to organize the first union that was ever started in this city--and so far we've managed to carry on our union work without any help from outsiders who have no real right to call themselves American citizens even--much less to dictate to us American workmen."
There was a stir among Vodell's followers. A voice rose but was silenced by the muttered protest which it caused. Jake Vodell, quick to grasp the feeling of the crowd, was making his way toward his goods box rostrum. Here and there he paused a moment to whisper to one of his inner circle.
The old workman continued, "You all know the principles that my boy Charlie stood for. You know that he was just as much against employers like McIver as he was against men like this agitator who is leading you into this trouble here to-night. Jake Vodell has made you believe that my boy was killed by the employer class. But I tell you men that Charlie had no better friend in the world than his employer, John Ward. And I tell you that John and Charlie were working together here for the best interests of us all--just as they were together in France. You know what my boy would say if he was here to-night. He would say just what I am saying. He would tell you that we workmen have got to stand by the employers who stand by us. He would tell you that we American union workmen must protect ourselves and our country against this anarchy and lawlessness that has got you men here to-night so all excited and beside yourselves that you don't know what you're doing. In Captain Charlie's name I ask you men to break up this mob and go quietly to your homes where you can think this thing over. We--"
From his position across the street Jake Vodell suddenly interrupted the old workman with a rapid fire of questions and insinuations and appeals to the mob.
Peter Martin, poorly equipped for a duel of words with such a master of the art, was silenced.
Slowly the mob swung again to the agitator. Under the spell of his influence they were responding once more to his call, when a big automobile rolled swiftly up to the edge of the crowd and stopped.
John Ward was the first to recognize his sister's car. With a word to the men near him he sprang to the ground and ran forward. The loyal workmen went with him.
In the surprise of the moment, not knowing what was about to happen, Jake Vodell stood silent. In breathless suspense every eye in the crowd was fixed upon that little group about Helen's car.
Another moment and the assembled workmen witnessed a sight that they will never forget. Down the lane that opened as if by magic through the mass of men came the loyal members of the Mill workers' union. High on their shoulders they carried the Interpreter.
In a silence, deep as the stillness of death, they bore him through those close-packed walls of humanity, straight to the big doors of the Mill. With their backs against the building they held him high--face to face with Jake Vodell and the mob that the agitator was swaying to his will.
The old basket maker's head was bare and against the dark background of the dingy walls his venerable face with its crown of silvery hair was as the face of a prophet.
They did not cheer. In silent awe they stood with tense, upturned faces.
A voice, low but clear and distinct, cut the stillness.
As one man, they uncovered their heads.
The Interpreter's deep voice--kindly but charged with strange authority--swept over them.
"Workmen--what are you doing here? Are you toys that you give yourselves as playthings into the hands of this man who chooses to use you in his game? Are you children to be led by his idle words and moved by his foolish dreams? Are you men or are you cattle to be stampeded by him, without reason, to your own destruction? Would you, at this stranger's bidding, dig a pit for your fancied enemies and fall into it yourselves?"
Not a man in that great crowd of workmen moved. In breathless silence they stood awed by the majesty of the old basket maker's presence--hushed by the sorrowful authority of his voice.
Solemnly the Interpreter continued, "The one who took the life of your comrade workman, Captain Charlie, was not a tool in the hands of your employers as you have been led to believe. Neither was that dreadful act inspired by the workmen of Millsburgh. Captain Charlie was killed by a poor, foolish weakling who was under the same spell that to-night has so nearly led you into this blind folly of destroying that which should be your glory and your pride. Sam Whaley has confessed to me. He has surrendered himself to the proper authorities. But the instigator of the crime--the one who planned, ordered and directed it--the leader who dominated and drove his poor tool to the deed is this man Jake Vodell."
The sound of the Interpreter's voice ceased. For a moment longer that dead silence held--then as the full import of the old basket maker's words went home to them, the crowd with a roar of fury turned toward the spot where the agitator had stood when the arrival of the Interpreter interrupted his address.
But Jake Vodell had disappeared.