The Helen of the Old House by Harold Bell Wright
Book III. The Strike
Chapter XXIX. Contracts
They had carried the Interpreter back to his wheel chair in the hut on the cliff.
John, Peter Martin and the two young women were bidding the old basket maker goodnight when suddenly they were silenced by the dull, heavy sound of a distant explosion.
A moment they stood gazing at one another, then John voiced the thoughts that had gripped the minds of every one in that little group:
Springing to the door that opened on to the balcony porch, John threw it open and they went out, taking the Interpreter in his chair. In breathless silence they strained their eyes toward the dark mass of the Mill with its forest of stacks and its many lights.
"Everything seems to be all right there," murmured John.
But as the last word left his lips a chorus of exclamations came from the others. Farther up the river a dull red glow flushed the sky.
The Interpreter said, quietly, "Jake Vodell."
With every second the red glow grew brighter--reaching higher and higher--spreading wider and wider over the midnight sky. Then they could see the flames--threadlike streaks and flashes in the dark cloud of smoke at first but increasing in volume, climbing and climbing in writhing, twisting columns of red fury. The wild, long-drawn shriek of the fire whistles, the clanging roar of the engines, the frantic rush of speeding automobiles awoke the echoes of the cliffs and aroused the sleeping creatures on the hillsides. The volume of the leaping, whirling mass of flames increased until the red glare shut out the stars.
The officers of the law who were hunting Jake Vodell heard that explosion and telephoned their stations for orders. The business men of the little city, awakened from their sleep, looked from their windows, muttered drowsy conjectures and returned to their beds. Mothers and children in their homes heard and turned uneasily in their dreams. The dwellers in the Flats heard and wondered fearfully.
Before morning dawned the telegraph wires would carry the word throughout the land. In every corner of our country the people would read, as they have all too often read of similar explosions. They would read, offer idle comments, perhaps, and straightway forget. That is the wonder and the shame of it--that with these frequent warnings ringing in our ears we are not warned. With these things continually forced upon our attention we do not heed. With the demonstration before our eyes we are not convinced. We are not aroused to the meaning of it all.
In his cell in the county jail, Sam Whaley heard that explosion and knew what it was.
The Interpreter was right when he said, "Jake Vodell."
It was an hour, perhaps, after the Interpreter's friends had left the hut when the old basket maker, who was still sitting at the window watching the burning factory, heard an automobile approaching at a frightful pace from the direction of the fire. The noise of the speeding machine ceased with startling suddenness at the foot of the stairway, and the Interpreter heard some one running up the steps with headlong haste. Without pausing to knock, Adam Ward burst into the room and stood panting and shaking with mad excitement before the man in the wheel chair.
The Mill owner's condition was pitiful. By his eyes that were glittering with wild, unnatural light, by the gray, twitching features, the grotesque gestures, the trembling, jerking limbs, the Interpreter knew that the last flickering gleam of reason had gone out. The hour toward which the man himself had looked with such dread had come. Adam Ward was insane.
With a leering grin of triumph the madman went closer to the old basket maker. "I got away again. They were right after me but they couldn't catch me. That roadster of mine is the fastest car in the county--cost me four thousand dollars. I knew if I could get here I would be safe. They wouldn't think of looking for me here in your shanty, would they? They can't get in anyway if they should come. You wouldn't--you wouldn't let them get me, would you?"
"Peace, Adam Ward! You are safe here."
The insane man chuckled. "The folks at the house think I am in my room asleep. They don't know that I never sleep. I'll tell you something. If a man sleeps he goes to hell--hell--hell--" His voice rose almost to a scream and he shook with terror.
"Did you see it? Did you see when hell broke out to-night over there where McIver's factory used to be? I did--I was there and I heard them roaring in the fibres of torment and screaming in the flames. They called for me but I laughed and came here. They'll never get Adam Ward into hell. They don't know it yet, but I've got a contract with God. I fixed it up myself just like you told me to and God signed it without reading it just as Peter Martin did. I'll show them! It'll take more than God to get the best of Adam Ward in a deal."
He walked about the room, waving his arms and laughing in hideous triumph, muttering mad boasts and mumbling to himself or taunting the phantom creatures of his disordered brain.
The helpless Interpreter could only wait silently for whatever was to follow.
At last the madman turned again to the old basket maker. Placing a chair close in front of the Interpreter, he seated himself and in a confidential whisper said, "Did you know that everybody thinks I am going insane? Well, I am not. Nobody knows it, but it's not me that's crazy--it's John. He's been that way ever since he got home from France. The poor boy thinks the world is still at war and that he can run the Mill just as he fought the Germans over there. There's another thing that you ought to know, too--you are crazy yourself. Don't be afraid, I won't tell anybody else. But you ought to know it. If a man knows it when he is going crazy it gives him a chance to fix things up with God so they can't get him into hell for all eternity, you see. So I thought I had better tell you."
The Interpreter spoke in a calm, matter-of-fact tone. "Thank you, Adam, I appreciate your kindness."
"I was there at the Mill tonight," Adam continued, "and I heard you tell them who killed Charlie Martin. And then those crazy fools went tearing off to hunt Jake Vodell." He chuckled and laughed. "What difference does it make who killed Charlie Martin? I own the patented process. I am the man they want. But they can't touch me. I hired the best lawyers in the country and I've got it sewed up tight. I put one over on Pete Martin in that deal and I've put one over on God, too. I've got God sewed up tight, I tell you, just like I sewed up Peter Martin. They can howl their heads off but they'll never get me into hell."
He leaned back in his chair with the satisfied air of a business man crediting himself with having closed a successful transaction.
Then, with a manner and voice that was apparently normal, he said, "Did I ever tell you about how I got that patented process of mine, Wallace?" The Interpreter knew by his use of that name, so seldom heard in these later years, that Adam's mind was back in the old days when, with Peter Martin, they had worked side by side at the same bench in the Mill.
Hoping to calm him, the old basket maker returned indifferently, "No, Adam, I don't remember that you ever told me, but don't you think some other time would be better perhaps than to-night? It is getting late and you--"
The other interrupted with a wave of his hand. "Oh, that's all right. It's safe enough to talk about it now. Besides," he added, with a cunning leer, "nobody would believe you if you should tell them the truth. You're nothing but a crazy old basket maker and I am Adam Ward, don't forget that for a minute." He glared threateningly at the man in the wheel chair, and the Interpreter, fearing another outburst, said, soothingly, "Certainly, Adam, I understand. I will not forget."
With the manner of one relating an interesting story in which he himself figured with great personal credit, Adam Ward said:
"It was Pete Martin, you see, who actually discovered the new process. But, luckily for me, I was the first one he told about it. He had worked it all out and I persuaded him not to say a thing to any one else until the patents were secured. Pete didn't really know the value of what he had. But I knew--I saw from the first that it would revolutionize the whole business, and I knew it would make a fortune for the man that owned the patents.
"Pete and I were pretty good friends in those days, but friendship don't go far in business. I never had a friend in my life that I couldn't use some way. So I had Pete over to my house every evening and made a lot over him and talked over his new process and made suggestions how he should handle it, until finally he offered to give me a half interest if I would look after the business details. That, of course, was exactly what I was playing for. And all this time, you see, I took mighty good care that not a soul was around when Pete and I talked things over. So we fixed it all up between us--with no one to hear us, mind you--that we were to share equally--half and half--in whatever the new process brought.
"After that, I went ahead and got all the patents good and tight and then I fixed up a nice little document for Pete to sign. But I waited and I didn't say a word to Pete until one evening when he and his wife were studying and figuring out the plans for the house they were going to build. I sat and planned with them a while until I saw how Pete's mind was all on his new house, and then all at once I put my little document down on the table in front of him and said, 'By the way, Pete, those patents will be coming along pretty soon and I have had a little contract fixed up just as a matter of form--you know how we planned it all. Here's where you sign--'"
Adam Ward paused to laugh with insane glee. "Pete did just what I knew he'd do--he signed that document without even reading a line of it and went on with his house planning and figuring as if nothing had happened. But something had happened--something big had happened. Instead of the way we had planned it together when we were talking alone with nobody to witness it, Pete signed to me outright for one dollar all his rights and interests in that new patented process."
Again the madman laughed triumphantly. "Pete never even found out what he'd done until nearly a year later. And then he wouldn't believe it until the lawyers made him. He couldn't do anything of course. I had it sewed up too tight. That process is mine, I tell you--mine by all the laws in the country. What if I did take advantage of him! That's business. A man ought to have sense enough to read what he puts his signature to. You don't catch me trusting anybody far enough to sign anything he puts before me without reading it. Why--why--what are you crying for?"
Adam Ward was not mistaken--the Interpreter's eyes were wet with tears.
The sight of the old basket maker's grief sent the insane man off on another tangent. "Don't you worry about me. Helen and John and their mother worry a lot about me. They think I'm going to hell."
He sprang to his feet with a hoarse inarticulate cry. "They'll never get me into hell! God has got to keep His contracts and I've fixed it all up so He'll have to save me whether He wants to or not. The papers are all signed and everything. My lawyer has got them in his safe. God can't help Himself. You told me I'd better do it and I have. I'm not afraid to meet God now! I'll show Him just like I showed Pete."
He rushed from the room as abruptly as he had entered. The Interpreter heard him plunging down the stairs. The roar of his automobile died away in the distance.
In an early morning extra edition, the Millsburgh Clarion announced the death of two of the most prominent citizens.
James McIver was killed in the explosion that burned his factory.
Adam Ward's body was found in a secluded corner of his beautiful estate. He died by his own hand.
The cigar-store philosopher put his paper down and reached into the show case for the box that the judge wanted. "It looks like McIver played the wrong cards in his little game with Jake Vodell," he remarked, as the judge made a careful selection.
"I am afraid so," returned the judge.
The postmaster took a handful from the same box and said, as he dropped a dollar on the top of the show case, "I see Sam Whaley has confessed that the blowing up of the factory was all set as part of their program. Their plan was to wreck the Mill first then McIver's place. Where do you suppose Jake Vodell got away to?"
"Hard to guess," said the judge.
The philosopher put the proper change before them. "There's one thing sure--the people of these here United States had better get good and busy findin' out where he is."
It was significant that neither the philosopher nor his customers mentioned the passing of Adam Ward.