The Helen of the Old House by Harold Bell Wright
Book I. The Interpreter
Chapter III. The Interpreter
The young woman announced her presence at the open door of the hut by calling, "Are you there?"
The deep voice of the Interpreter answered, "Helen! Here I am, child--on the porch. Come!" As she passed swiftly through the house and appeared in the porch doorway, he added, "This is a happy surprise, indeed. I thought you were not expected home for another month. It seems ages since you went away."
She tried bravely to smile in response to the gladness in her old friend's greeting. "I had planned to stay another month," she said, "but I--" She paused as if for some reason she found it hard to explain why she had returned to Millsburgh so long before the end of the summer season. Then she continued slowly, as if remembering that she must guard her words, "Brother wrote me that they were expecting serious labor troubles, and with father as he is--" Her voice broke and she finished lamely, "Mother is so worried and unhappy. I--I felt that I really ought not to be away."
She turned quickly and went to stand at the porch railing, where she watched the cloud of dust that marked the progress of Bobby and Maggie through the Flats.
"I can't understand father's condition at all," she said, presently, without looking at the Interpreter. "He is so--so--" Again she paused as if she could not find courage to speak the thought that so disturbed her mind.
From his wheel chair the Interpreter silently watched the young woman who was so envied by the people. And because the white-haired old basket maker knew many things that were hidden from the multitude, his eyes were as the eyes of the Master when He looked upon the rich young ruler whom He loved.
Then, as if returning to a thought that had been interrupted by the unwelcome intrusion of a forbidden subject, Helen said, "I can't understand how you tolerate such dirty, rude and vicious little animals as those two children."
The Interpreter smiled understandingly at the back of her very becoming and very correctly fashioned hat. "You met my little friends, did you?"
"I did," she answered, with decided emphasis, "at the foot of your stairs, and I was forced to listen to the young ruffian's very frank opinion of me and of all that he is taught to believe I represent. I wonder you did not hear. But I suppose you can guess what he would say."
"Yes," said the man in the wheel chair, gently, "I can guess Bobby's opinion of you, quite as accurately as Bobby guesses your opinion of him."
At that she turned on him with a short laugh that was rather more bitter than mirthful. "Well, the little villain is guessing another guess just now. I sent Tom to take them for a ride in the car."
"And why did you do that?"
She waited a little before she answered. "I don't know exactly. Perhaps it was your Helen of the old house that did it. She may have been a little ashamed of me and wanted to make it up to them. I am afraid I really wasn't very kind at first."
"I see," said the Interpreter, gravely.
"There might possibly have been the shade of another reason," she continued, after a moment, and there was a hint of bitterness in her voice now.
"Yes, it is conceivable, perhaps, that, in spite of the prevailing opinions of such people, even I might have felt a wee bit sorry for the poor kiddies--especially for the girl. She is such a tiny, tired-looking mite."
The old basket maker was smiling now, as he said, "I have known for a long time that there were two Helens. Little Maggie, it seems, has found still another."
"Yes, Maggie has discovered, somehow, that you are really a beautiful princess, living on most intimate terms with the fairies. She will think so more than ever now."
The young woman laughed at this. "And the boy--what do you suppose he will think after his ride with Tom in the limousine?"
The Interpreter shook his head doubtfully. "Bobby will probably reserve his judgment for a while, on the possible chance of another ride in your car."
"Tell me about them," said Helen.
"Are you really interested?"
She flushed a little as she answered, "I am at least curious."
"Perhaps because of your interest in them," she retorted. "Who are they?"
The Interpreter did not answer for a moment; then, with his dark eyes fixed on the heavy cloud of smoke that hung above the Mill and overshadowed the Flats, he said, slowly, "They are Sam Whaley's children. Their father works--when he works--in your father's Mill. I knew both Sam and his wife before they were married. She was a bright girl, with fine instincts for the best things of life and a capacity for great happiness. Sam was a good worker in those days, and their marriage promised well. Then he became interested in the wrong sort of what is called socialism, and began to associate with a certain element that does not value homes and children very highly. The man is honest, and fairly capable, up to a certain point; but there never was much capacity there for clear thinking. He is one of those who always follow the leader who yells the loudest and he mistakes vituperation for argument. He is strong on loyalty to class, but is not so particular as he might be when it comes to choosing his class. And so, for several years now, in every little difference between the workmen and the management, Sam has been too ready to quit his job and let his wife and children go hungry for the good of the cause, while he vociferates loudly against the cruelty of all who refuse to offer their families as sacrifice on the altar of his particular and impracticable ideas."
"And his wife--the mother of his children--the girl with fine instincts for the best things and a capacity for great happiness--what of her?" demanded Helen.
The Interpreter pointed toward the Flats. "She lives down there," he said, sadly. "You have seen her children."
The young woman turned again to the porch railing and looked down on the wretched dwellings of the Flats below.
"It is strange," she said, presently, as if speaking to herself, "but that poor woman makes me think of mother. Mother is like that, isn't she? I mean," she added, quickly, "in her instincts and in her capacity for happiness."
"Yes," agreed the Interpreter, "your mother is like that."
She faced him once more, to say thoughtfully, but with decisive warmth, "It is a shame the way such children--I mean the children of such people as this man Whaley--are being educated in lawlessness. Those youngsters are nothing less than juvenile anarchists. They will grow up a menace to our government, to society, to our homes, and to everything that is decent and right. They are taught to hate work. And they fairly revel in their hatred of every one and every thing that is not of their own miserable class."
There was a note of gentle authority in the Interpreter's deep voice, and in his dark eyes there was a look of patient sorrow, as he replied, "Yes, Helen, all that you say of our Bobbies and Maggies is true. But have you ever considered whether it might not be equally true of the children of wealth?"
"Is the possession of what we call wealth a crime?" the young woman asked, bitterly. "Is poverty always such a virtue?"
The Interpreter answered, "I mean, child, that wealth which comes unearned from the industries of life--that wealth for which no service is rendered--for which no equivalent in human strength, mental or physical, is returned. Are not the children of such conditions being educated in lawlessness when the influence of their money so often permits them to break our laws with impunity? Are they not a menace to our government when they coerce and bribe our public servants to enact laws and enforce measures that are for the advantage of a few favored ones and against the welfare of our people as a whole? Are they not a menace to society when they would limit the meaning of the very word to their own select circles and cliques? Are they not a menace to our homes by the standards of morals that too often govern their daily living? For that hatred of class taught the Bobbies and Maggies of the Flats, Helen, these other children are taught an intolerance and contempt for everything that is not of their class--an intolerance and contempt that breed class hatred as surely as blow flies breed maggots."
For some time the silence was broken only by the dull, droning voice of the Mill. They listened as they would have listened to the first low moaning of the wind that might rise later into a destructive storm.
The Interpreter spoke again. "Helen, this nation cannot tolerate one standard of citizenship for one class and a totally different standard for another. Whatever is right for the children of the hill, yonder, is right for the children of the Flats, down there."
Helen asked, abruptly, "Is there any truth in all this talk about coming trouble with the labor unions?"
The man in the wheel chair did not answer immediately. Then he replied, gravely, with another question, "And who is it that says there is going to be trouble again, Helen?"
"John says everybody is expecting it. And Mr. McIver is so sure that he is already preparing for it at his factory. He says it will be the worst industrial war that Millsburgh has ever experienced--that it must be a fight to the finish this time--that nothing but starvation will bring the working classes to their senses."
"Yes," agreed the Interpreter, thoughtfully, "McIver would say just that. And many of our labor agitators would declare, in exactly the same spirit, that nothing but the final and absolute downfall of the employer class can ever end the struggle. I wonder what little Bobby and Maggie Whaley and their mother would say if they could have their way about it, Helen?"
Helen Ward's face flushed as she said in a low, deliberate voice, "Father agrees with Mr. McIver--you know how bitter he is against the unions?"
"Yes, I know."
"But John says that Mr. McIver, with his talk of force and of starving helpless women and children, is as bad as this man Jake Vodell who has come to Millsburgh to organize a strike. It is really brother's attitude toward the workmen and their unions and his disagreement with Mr. McIver's views that make father as--as he is."
The Interpreter's voice was gentle as he asked, "Your father is not worse, is he, Helen? I have heard nothing."
"Oh, no," she returned, quickly. "That is--"
She hesitated, then continued, with careful exactness, "For a time he even seemed much better. When I went away he was really almost like his old self. But this labor situation and John's not seeing things exactly as he does worries him. The doctors all agree, you know, that father must give up everything in the nature of business and have absolute mental rest; but he insists that in the face of this expected trouble with the workmen he dares not trust the management of the Mill wholly to John, because of what he calls brother's wild and impracticable ideas. Everybody knows how father has given his life to building up the Mill. And now, he--he--It is terrible the way he is about things. Poor mother is almost beside herself." The young woman's eyes filled and her lips trembled.
The man in the wheel chair turned to the unfinished basket on the table beside him and handled his work aimlessly, as if in sorrow that he had no word of comfort for her.
When Adam Ward's daughter spoke again there was a curious note of defiance in her voice, but her eyes, when the Interpreter turned to look at her, were fixed upon her old friend with an expression of painful anxiety and fear. "Of course his condition is all due to his years of hard work and to the mental and nervous strain of his business. It--it couldn't be anything else, could it?"
The Interpreter, who seemed to be watching the intricate and constantly changing forms that the columns of smoke from the tall stacks were shaping, apparently did not hear.
"Don't--don't you think it is all because of his worry over the Mill?"
"Yes, Helen," the Interpreter answered, at last, "I am sure your father's trouble all comes from the Mill."
For a while she did not speak, but sat looking wistfully toward the clump of trees that shaded her birthplace and the white cottage where Peter Martin lived with Charlie and Mary.
Then she said, musingly, "How happy we all were in the old house, when father worked in the Mill with you and Uncle Pete, and you used to come for Sunday dinner with us. Do you know, sometimes"--she hesitated as if making a confession of which she was a little ashamed--"sometimes--that is, since brother came home from France, I--I almost hate it. I think I feel just as mother does, only neither of us dares admit it--scarcely even to ourselves."
"You almost hate what, Helen?"
"Oh, everything--the way we live, the people we know, the stupid things I am expected to do. It all seems so useless--so futile--so--so--such a waste of time."
The Interpreter was studying her with kindly interest.
"I never felt this way before brother went away. And during the war everybody was so much excited and interested, helping in every way he or she could. But now--now that it is over and John is safely home again, I can't seem to get back into the old ways at all. Life seems to have flattened out into a dull, monotonous round of nothing that really matters."
The Interpreter spoke, thoughtfully, "Many people, I find, feel that way these days, Helen."
"As for brother," she continued, "he is so changed that I simply can't understand him at all. He is like a different man--just grinds away in that dirty old Mill day after day, as if he were nothing more than a common laborer who had to work or starve. In fact," she finished with an air of triumph, "that is exactly what he says he is--simply a laborer like--like Charlie Martin and the rest of them."
The Interpreter smiled.
"It was all very well for John and Charlie Martin to be buddies, as they call it, during the war," she went on. "It was different over there in France. But now that it is all over and they are home again, and Captain Martin has gone back to his old work in the Mill where John has practically become the manager, there is no sense in brother's keeping up the intimacy. Really I don't wonder that father is worried almost to death over it all. I suppose the next thing John will be chumming with this Jake Vodell himself."
"I don't suppose you see much of your old friends the Martins these days, do you, Helen?" said the old basket maker, reflectively.
She retorted quickly with an air, "Certainly not."
"But I remember, in the old-house days, before you went away to school, you and Charlie Martin were--"
She interrupted him with "I was a silly child. I suppose every girl at about that age has to have her foolish little romance."
And the Interpreter saw that her cheeks were crimson.
"A young girl's first love is not in the least silly or foolish, my dear," he said.
She made an effort to speak lightly. "Well, fortunately, mine did not last long."
"I know," he returned, "but I thought perhaps because of the friendship between John and the Captain--"
"I could scarcely see much of one of the common workmen in my father's mill, could I?" she asked, warmly. "I must admit, though," she added, with an odd note in her voice, "that I admire his good sense in never accepting John's invitations to the house."
And then, suddenly, to the consternation of her companion, her eyes filled with tears.
The Interpreter looked away toward the beautiful country beyond the squalid Plats, the busy city, the smoke-clouded Mill.
There was a sound of some one knocking at the front door of the hut. Through the living room Helen saw her chauffeur.
"Yes, Tom," she called, "I am coming."
To the Interpreter she said, hurriedly, "I have really stayed longer than I should. I promised mother that I would be home early. She is so worried about father, I do not like to leave her, but I felt that I must see you. I--I haven't said at all the things I--wanted to say. Father--" She looked at the man in the wheel chair appealingly, as she hesitated again with the manner of one who feels compelled to speak, yet fears to betray a secret. "You feel sure, don't you, that father's condition is nothing more than the natural result of his nervous breakdown and his worry over business?"
The Interpreter thought how like the look in her eyes was to the look in the eyes of timid little Maggie. And again he waited, before answering, "Yes, Helen, I am sure that your father's trouble is all caused by the Mill. Is there anything that I can do, child?"
"There is nothing that any one can do, I fear," she returned, with a little gesture of hopelessness. Then, avoiding the grave, kindly eyes of the old basket maker, she forced herself to say, in a tone that was little more than a whisper, "I sometimes think--at tines I am almost compelled to believe that there is something more--something that we--that no one knows about." With sudden desperate earnestness she went on with nervous haste as if she feared her momentary courage would fail. "I can't explain--but it is as if he were hiding something and dreaded every moment that it would be discovered. He is so--so afraid. Can it be possible that there is something that we do not know--some hidden thing?" And then, before the Interpreter could speak, she exclaimed, with a forced laugh of embarrassment, "How silly of me to talk like this--you will think that I am going insane."
When he was alone, the Interpreter turned again to his basket making. "Yes, Billy," he said aloud as his deaf and dumb companion appeared in the doorway a few minutes later, "yes, Billy, she will find her jewel of happiness. But it will not be easy, Billy--it will not be easy."
To which, of course, Billy made no reply. And that--the Interpreter always maintained--was one of the traits that made his companion such a delightful conversationalist. He invariably found your pet arguments and theories unanswerable, and accepted your every assertion without question.
Helen Ward could not feel that her father's condition--much as it alarmed and distressed her--was, in itself, the reason of her own unrest and discontent. She felt, rather, in a vague, instinctive way, that the source of her parent's trouble was somehow identical with the cause of her own unhappiness. But what was it that caused her father's affliction and her own dissatisfied and restless mental state? The young woman questioned herself in vain.
Pausing at one of the turns in the stairway, she stood for some time looking at the life that lay before her, as though wondering if the answer to her questions might not be found somewhere in that familiar scene.
But the Mill, with its smoking stacks and the steady song of its industry, had no meaning for her. The dingy, dust-veiled Flats spoke a language that she was not schooled to understand. The farms of the valley beyond the river, so beautiful in their productiveness, were as meaningless to her as the life on some unknown planet. To her the busy city with its varied interests was without significance. The many homes on the hillside held, for her, nothing. And yet as she looked she was possessed of a curious feeling that everything in that world before her eyes was occupied with some definite purpose--was living to some fixed end--was a part of life--belonged to life. Below her, on the road at the foot of the cliffs, an old negro with an ancient skeleton of a horse and a shaky wreck of a wagon was making slow progress toward the Flats. To Helen, even this poor creature was going somewhere--to some definite place--on some definite mission. She felt strangely alone.
In those years of the war Adam Ward's daughter, like many thousands of her class, had been inevitably forced into a closer touch with life than she had ever known before. She had felt, as never before, the great oneness of humanity. She had sensed a little the thrilling power of a great human purpose. Now it was as though life ignored her, passed her by. She felt left out, overlooked, forgotten.
Slowly she went on down the zigzag stairway to her waiting automobile.
As she entered her car, the chauffeur looked at her curiously. When she gave him no instructions, he asked, quietly, "Home, Miss?"
She started. "Yes, Tom."
The man was in his place at the wheel when she added, "Did those children enjoy their ride, Tom?"
"That they did, Miss--it was the treat of their lives."
Little Maggie's princess lady smiled wistfully--almost as Maggie herself might have smiled.
As the car was moving slowly away from the foot of the old stairway, she spoke again. "Tom!"
"You may drive around by the old house, please."