The Helen of the Old House by Harold Bell Wright
Book I. The Interpreter
Chapter V. Adam Ward's Estate
In spite of that smile of mingled admiration, contempt and envy, with which the people always accompanied any mention of Adam Ward, Millsburgh took no little pride in the dominant Mill owner's achievements. In particular, was the Ward home, most pretentious of all the imposing estates on the hillside, an object of never-failing interest and conversational speculation. "Adam Ward's castle," the people called it, smiling. And no visiting stranger of any importance whatever could escape being driven past that glaring architectural monstrosity which stood so boldly on its most conspicuous hillside elevation and proclaimed so defiantly to all the world its owner's material prosperity.
But the sight-seers always viewed the "castle" and the "palatial grounds" (the Millsburgh Clarion, in a special Sunday article for which Adam paid, so described the place) through a strong, ornamental iron fence, with a more than ornamental gate guarded by massive stone columns. Only when the visiting strangers were of sufficient importance in the owner's eyes were they permitted to pass the conspicuous PRIVATE PROPERTY, NO ADMITTANCE sign at the entrance. As the cigar-stand philosopher explained, Adam Ward did not propose to give anything away.
The chief value of his possessions, in Adam's thoughts, lay in the fact that they were his. He always said, "My house--my grounds--my flowers--my trees--my fountain--my fence." He even extended his ownership and spoke of the very birds who dared to ignore the PRIVATE PROPERTY, No ADMITTANCE sign as my birds. So marked, indeed, was this characteristic habit of his speech, that no one in Millsburgh would have been surprised to hear him say, "My sun--my moonlight." And never did he so forget himself as to include his wife and children in such an expression as "our home." Why, indeed, should he? His wife and his children were as much his as any of the other items on the long list of the personal possessions which he had so industriously acquired.
In perfect harmony with the principles that ordered his life, the owner of the castle made great show of hospitality at times. But the recipients of his effusive welcome were invariably those from whom, or through whom, he had reason to think he might derive a definite material gain in return for his graciousness. The chief entertainment offered these occasional utilitarian guests was a verbal catalogue of the estate, with an itemized statement of the cost of everything mentioned. If the architecture of the house was noticed, Adam proudly disclaimed any knowledge of architecture, but named the architect's fee, and gave the building cost in detail, from the heating system to the window screens. If one chanced to betray an interest in a flower or shrub or tree, he boasted that he could not name a plant on the place, and told how many thousands he had paid the landscape architect, and what it cost him each year to maintain the lawns and gardens. If the visitor admired the fountain or the statuary he declared--quite unnecessarily--that he knew nothing of art, but had paid the various artists represented various definite dollars and cents. And never was there a guest of that house that poor Adam did not seek to discredit to his family and to other guests, lest by any chance any one should fail to recognize the host's superiority.
In his youth the Mill owner had received from his parents certain exaggerated religious convictions as to the desirability of gaining heaven and escaping, hell when one's years of material gains and losses should be forever past. Therefore, his spiritual life, also, was wholly a matter of personal bargain and profit. The church was an insurance corporation, of a sort, to which he paid his dues, as he paid the premiums on his policies in other less pretentious companies. As a matter of additional security--which cost nothing in the way of additional premiums--he never failed to say grace at the table.
This matter of grace, Adam found, was also a character asset of no little value when there were guests whom he, for good material reasons, wished to impress with the fine combination of business ability and sterling Christian virtue that so distinguished his simple and sincere nature. Profess yourself the disinterested friend of a man--make him believe that you value his friendship for its own sake and, on that ground, invite him to your home as your honored guest. And then, when he sits at your table, ask God to bless the food, the home, and the guest, and you have unquestionably maneuvered your friend into a position where he will contribute liberally to your business triumphs--if your contracts are cleverly drawn and you strike for the necessary signature while the glow of your generous hospitality is still warm.
And thus, with his patented process and his cleverly drawn contracts, this man had reaped from hospitality, religion and friendship the abundant gains that made him the object of his neighbors' admiration, contempt and envy.
But the end of Adam Ward's material harvest day was come. As Helen had told the Interpreter, the doctors were agreed that her father must give up everything in the nature of business and have absolute mental rest. The Mill owner must retire.
Retire! Retire to what?
The world of literature--of history and romance, of poetry and the lives of men--the world of art, with its magic of color and form--the world of music, with its power to rest the weary souls of men--the world of nature, that with its myriad interests lay about him on every side--the world of true friendships, with their inspiring sympathies and unselfish love--in these worlds there is no place for Adam Wards.
Retire! Retire to what?
* * * * *
One afternoon, a few days after her visit to the Interpreter, Helen sat with a book in a little vine-covered arbor, in a secluded part of the grounds, some distance from the house. She had been in the quiet retreat an hour, perhaps, when her attention was attracted by the sound of some one approaching. Through a tiny opening in the lattice and vine wall she saw her father.
Adam Ward apparently was on his way to the very spot his daughter had chosen, and the young woman smiled to herself as she pictured his finding her there. But a moment before the seemingly inevitable discovery, the man turned aside to a rustic seat in the shade of a great tree not far away.
Helen was about to reveal her presence by calling to him when something in her father's manner caused her to hesitate. Through the leafy screen of the arbor wall she saw him stop beside the bench and look carefully about on every side, as if to assure himself that he was alone. The young woman flushed guiltily, but, as if against her will, she remained silent. As she watched her father's face, a feeling of pity, fear and wonder held her breathless.
Helen had often seen her father suffering under an attack of nervous excitement. She had witnessed his spells of ungoverned rage that left him white and trembling with exhaustion. She had known his fears that he tried so hard to hide. She knew of his sleepless nights, of his dreams of horror, of his hours of lonely brooding. But never had she seen her father like this. It was as if Adam Ward, believing himself unobserved, let fall the mask that hid his secret self from even those who loved him most. Sinking down upon the bench, he groaned aloud, while his daughter, looking upon that huddled figure of abject misery and despair, knew that she was witnessing a mental anguish that could come only from some source deep hidden beneath the surface of her father's life. She could not move. As one under some strange spell, she was helpless.
The doctors had said--diplomatically--that Adam Ward's ill health was a nervous trouble, resulting from his lifelong devotion to his work, with no play spell or rest, and no relief through interest in other things. But Adam Ward knew the real reason for the medical men's insistent advice that he retire from the stress of the Mill to the quiet of his estate. He knew it from his wife's anxious care and untiring watchfulness. He knew it from the manner of his business associates when they asked how he felt. He knew when, at some trivial incident or word, he would be caught, helpless, in the grip of an ungovernable rage that would leave him exhausted for many weary, brooding hours. He felt it in the haunting, unconquerable fears that beset him--by the feeling of some dread presence watching him--by the convictions that unknown enemies were seeking his life--by his terrifying dreams of the hell of his inherited religion.
And the real reason for his condition Adam Ward knew. It was not the business to which he had driven himself so relentlessly. It was not that he had no other interests to take his mind from the Mill. It was a thing that he had fought, in secret, almost every hour of every year of his accumulating successes. It was a thing which his neighbors and associates and family felt in his presence but could not name--a thing which made him turn his eyes away from a frank, straightforward look and forbade him to look his fellows in the face save by an exertion of his will.
Through the vines, Helen saw her father stoop to pick from the ground a few twigs that had escaped the eyes of the caretakers. Deliberately he broke the twigs into tiny bits, and threw the pieces one by one aside. His gray face, drawn and haggard, twitched and worked with the nervous stress of his thoughts. From under his heavy brows he glanced with the quick, furtive look of a hunted thing, as though fearing some enemy that might be hidden in the near-by shrubbery. The young woman, shrinking from the look in his eyes, and not daring to make her presence known, remembered, suddenly, how the Interpreter had been reluctant to discuss her father's illness.
Casting aside the last tiny bit of the twig which he had broken so aimlessly, he found another and continued his senseless occupation.
With pity and love in her heart, Helen wanted to go to him--to help him, but she could not--some invisible presence seemed to forbid.
Suddenly Adam raised his head. A moment he listened, then cautiously he rose to his feet--listening, listening. It was no trick of his fancy this tune. He could hear voices on the other side of a dense growth of shrubbery near the fence. Two people were talking. He could not distinguish the words but he could hear distinctly the low murmur of their voices.
Helen, too, heard the voices and looked in that direction. From her position in the arbor she could see the speakers. With the shadow of a quick smile, she turned her eyes again toward her father. He was looking about cautiously, as if to assure himself that he was alone. The shadow of a smile vanished from Helen's face as she watched in wondering fear.
Stooping low, Adam Ward crept swiftly to a clump of bushes near the spot from which the sound of the voices came. Crouching behind the shrubbery, he silently parted the branches and peered through. Bobby and Maggie Whaley stood on the outer side of the fence with their little faces thrust between the iron pickets, looking in.
Still in the glow of their wonderful experience at the Interpreter's hut and the magnificent climax of that day's adventure, the children had determined to go yet farther afield. It was true that their father had threatened dire results if they should continue the acquaintance begun at the foot of the Interpreter's zigzag stairway, but, sufficient unto the day.--They would visit the great castle on the hill where their beautiful princess lady lived. And, who could tell, perhaps they might see her once more. Perhaps--"But that," said tiny Maggie, "was too wonderful ever to happen again."
The way had been rather long for bare little feet. But excited hope had strengthened them. And so they had climbed the hill, and had come at last to the iron fence through which they could see the world of bright flowers and clean grass and shady trees, and, in the midst of it all, the big house. With their hungry little faces thrust between the strong iron pickets, Sam Whaley's children feasted their eyes on the beauties of Adam Ward's possessions. Even Bobby, in his rapture over the loveliness of the scene, forgot for the moment his desire to blow up the castle, with its owner and all.
Behind his clump of shrubbery, Adam Ward, crouching like some stealthy creature of the jungle, watched and listened.
From the shelter of the arbor, Adam Ward's daughter looked upon the scene with white-faced interest.
"Gee," said Bobby, "some place, I'd say!"
"Ain't it pretty?" murmured little Maggie. "Just like them places where the fairies live."
"Huh," returned the boy, "old Adam Ward, he ain't no fairy I'm a-tellin' yer."
To which Maggie, hurt by this suggested break in the spell of her enchantment, returned indignantly, "Well, I guess the fairies can live in all them there pretty flowers an' things just the same, if old Adam does own 'em. You can't shut fairies out with no big iron fences."
"That's so," admitted Bobby. "Gee, I wisht we was fairies, so's we could sneak in! Gee, wouldn't yer like ter take a roll on that there grass?"
"Huh," returned the little girl, "I know what I'd do if I was a fairy. I'd hide in that there bunch of flowers over there, an' I'd watch till the beautiful princess lady with the kind heart come along, an' I'd tell her where she could find them there jewels of happiness what the Interpreter told us about."
"Do yer reckon she's in the castle there, right now?" asked Bobby.
"I wonder!" murmured Maggie.
"Betcher can't guess which winder is hern."
"Bet I kin; it's that there one with all them vines around it. Princess ladies allus has vines a-growin' 'roun' their castle winders--so's when the prince comes ter rescue 'em he kin climb up."
"Wisht she'd come out."
Little Maggie's wish was never expressed, for at that moment, from behind that near-by clump of shrubbery a man sprang toward them, his face distorted with passion and his arms tossing in threatening gestures.
The children, too frightened to realize the safety of their position on the other side of those iron bars, stood speechless. For the moment they could neither cry out nor run.
"Get out!" Adam Ward yelled, hoarse with rage, as he would have driven off a trespassing dog. "Get out! Go home where you belong! Don't you know this is private property? Do you think I am keeping a circus here for all the dirty brats in the country to look at? Get out, I tell you, or I'll--"
With frantic speed the two children fled down the hill.
Adam Ward laughed--laughed until he was forced to hold his sides and the tears of his ungodly mirth rolled down his cheeks.
But such laughter is a fearful thing to see. White and trembling with the shame and the horror of it, Helen crouched in her hiding place, not daring even to move. She felt, as never before, the presence of that spirit which possessed her father and haunted her home. It was as if the hidden thing of which she had forced herself to speak to the Interpreter were suddenly about to materialize before her eyes. She wanted to scream--to cry aloud her fear--to shriek her protest--but sheer terror held her motionless and dumb.
The spell was broken by Mrs. Ward who, from somewhere in the grounds, was calling, "Adam! Oh-h, Adam!"
The man heard, and Helen saw him controlling his laughter, and looking cautiously about.
Again the call came, and there was an anxious note in the voice. "Adam--father--Oh-h, father, where are you?"
With a cruel grin still twisting his gray face, Adam slunk behind a clump of bushes.
Helen Ward crept from her hiding place and, keeping the little arbor between herself and her father, stole away through the grounds. When she was beyond his hearing, she almost ran, as if to escape from a spot accursed.