The Helen of the Old House by Harold Bell Wright
Book I. The Interpreter
Chapter VI. On the Old Road
When Bobby and Maggie Whaley fled from the immediate vicinity of Adam Ward's estate, they were beside themselves with fear--blind, unreasoning, instinctive fear.
There is a fear that is reasonable--that is born of an intelligent comprehension of the danger that menaces, and there is a fear that is born of ignorance--of inability to understand the nature of the danger. These children of the Flats had nothing in their little lives by which they might know the owner of the Mill, or visualize the world in which the man for whom their father worked lived. To Bobby and Maggie the home of Adam Ward was a place of mystery, as far removed from the world of their actualities as any fabled castle in fairyland could possibly be.
Sam Whaley's distorted views of all employers in the industrial world, and his fanatical ideas of class loyalty, were impressed with weird exaggeration upon the fertile minds of his children. From their father's conversation with his workmen neighbors, and from the suggestive expressions and epithets which Sam had gleaned from the literature upon which he fed his mind and which he used with such gusto, Bobby and Maggie had gathered the material out of which they had created an imaginary monster, capable of destroying them with fiendish delight. They had seen angry men too often to be much disturbed by mere human wrath. But, to them, this Adam Ward who had appeared so suddenly from the shrubbery was more than a man; he was all that they had been taught to believe--a hideous thing of more dreadful power and sinister purpose than could be imagined.
With all their strength they ran down the old hill road toward the world of the Flats where they belonged. They dared not even look over their shoulders. The very ground seemed to drag at their feet to hold them back. Then little Maggie stumbled and fell. Her frantic screams reached Bobby, who was a few feet in advance, and the boy stopped instantly and faced about, with terror in his eyes but with evident determination to defend his sister at any cost.
When he had pulled Maggie to her feet, and it was certain that there was nothing pursuing them, Bobby, boylike, laughed. "Gee, but we made some git-away, that trip! Gee, I'll tell the world!"
The little girl clung to her protector, shaking with weariness and fear. "I--can't run 'nother step," she gasped. "Will he come after us here?"
"Naw," returned the boy, with reassuring boldness, "he won't come this far. Yer just lay down in the grass, under this here tree, 'til yer catch yer wind; then we'll make it on down to the Interpreter's --'tain't far to the stairs. You just take it easy. I'll watch."
The soft grass and the cool shade were very pleasant after their wild run, and they were loath to go, even when little Maggie had recovered from her exhaustion. Very soon, when no danger appeared, the boy forgot to watch and began an animated discussion of their thrilling experience.
But Maggie did not share her brother's boastful triumph. "Do you suppose," she said, wistfully, "that he is like that to the princess lady?"
Bobby shook his head doubtfully. "I don't know. Yer can't tell what he'd do to her if he took a notion. Old Adam Ward would do anything that's mean, to anybody, no matter who. I'll bet--"
The sound of some one approaching from the direction of the castle interrupted Bobby's conjectures.
Maggie would have made another frantic effort to escape, but the boy caught her roughly and drew her down beside him. "No use to run--yer can't make it," he whispered. "Best lay low. An' don't yer dast even whimper."
Lying prone, they wormed themselves into the tall grass, with the trunk of the tree between them and the road, until it would have been a keen observer, indeed, who would have noticed them in passing.
They heard the approaching danger coming nearer and nearer. Little Maggie buried her face in the grass roots to stifle a scream. Now it was on the other side of the tree. It was passing on. Suddenly they almost buried themselves in the ground in their effort to lie closer to the earth. The sound of the footsteps had ceased.
For what seemed to them hours, the frightened children lay motionless, scarcely daring to breathe. Then another sound came to their straining ears--a sound not unfamiliar to the children of the Flats. A woman was weeping.
Cautiously, the more courageous Bobby raised his head until he could peer through the tangled stems and blades of the sheltering grass. A moment he looked, then gently shook his sister's arm. Imitating her brother's caution, little Maggie raised her frightened face. Only a few steps away, their princess lady was crouching in the grass, with her face buried in her hands, crying bitterly.
"Well, what do yer know about that?" whispered Bobby.
A moment longer they kept their places, whispering in consultation. Then they rose quietly to their feet and, hand in hand, stood waiting.
Helen had not consciously followed the children. Indeed, her mind was so occupied with her own troubled thoughts that she had forgotten the little victims of her father's insane cruelty. To avoid meeting her mother, as she fled from the scene of her father's madness, she had taken a course that led her toward the entrance to the estate. With the one thought of escaping from the invisible presence of that hidden thing, she had left the grounds and followed the quiet old road.
When the storm of her grief had calmed a little, the young woman raised her head and saw Sam Whaley's dirty, ill-kept children gazing at her with wondering sympathy. It is not too much to say that Helen Ward was more embarrassed than she would have been had she found herself thus suddenly in the presence of royalty. "I am sorry you were frightened," she said, hesitatingly. "I can't believe that he really would have hurt you."
"Huh," grunted Bobby. "I'm darned glad we was outside of that there fence."
Maggie's big eyes were eloquent with compassion. "Did--did he scare yer, too?"
Helen held back her tears with an effort. "Yes, dear, he frightened me, too--dreadfully."
With shy friendliness, little Maggie drew closer. "Is he--is he sure 'nuff, yer father?"
"Yes," returned Helen, "he is my father."
"Gee!" ejaculated Bobby. "An' is he always like that?"
"Oh, no, indeed," returned Helen, quickly. "Father is really kind and good, but he--he is sick now and not wholly himself, you see."
"Huh," said Bobby. "He didn't act very sick to me. What's ailin' him?"
Helen answered slowly, "I--we don't just know what it is. The doctors say it is a nervous trouble."
"An' does he--does he ever whip yer?" asked Maggie.
In spite of the pain in her heart, Helen smiled. "No--never."
"Our dad gits mad, too, sometimes," said Bobby. "But, gee! he ain't never like that. Dad, he wouldn't care if somebody just looked into our yard. We wasn't a-hurtin' nothin'--just a-lookin'--that's all. Yer can't hurt nothin' just a-lookin', can yer?"
"I am sorry," said Helen.
"Be yer happy?" asked Maggie, suddenly, with disconcerting directness.
"Why!" replied Helen, "I--What makes you ask such a funny question?"
Maggie was too much embarrassed at her own boldness to answer, and Bobby came to her rescue.
"She wants to know because the Interpreter, he tole us about a princess what lived in a castle an' wasn't happy 'til the fairy told her how to find the jewel of happiness; an' Mag, here, she thinks it's you."
"And where did the princess find the jewel of happiness?" asked Helen.
Little Maggie's anxiety to help overcame her timidity and she answered precisely, "On the shores of the sea of life which was not far from the castle where the beautiful princess lived."
Helen looked toward the Flats, the Mill, and the homes in the neighborhood of the old house. "The shores of the sea of life," she repeated, thoughtfully. "I see."
"Yes," continued Maggie, with her tired little face alight, and her eyes big with excited eagerness, "but the beautiful princess, she didn't know that there jewel of happiness when she seen it."
"No?" said Helen, smiling at her little teacher.
"No--an' so she picked up all the bright, shiny stones what was no good at all, 'til the fairy showed her how the real jewel she was a-wantin' was an old, ugly, dirt-colored thing what didn't look like any jewel, no more 'n nothin'."
"Oh, I see!" said Helen again. And Bobby thought that she looked at them as though she were thinking very hard.
"Yer forgot something Mag," said the boy, suddenly.
"I ain't neither," returned his sister, with unusual boldness. "Yer shut up an' see." Then, to Helen, "Is yer heart kind, lady?"
"I--I hope so, dear," returned the disconcerted Helen. "Why?"
"Because, if it is, then the fairies will help yer find the real jewel of happiness, 'cause that was the reason, yer see, it all happened--'cause the beautiful princess's heart was kind." She turned to Bobby triumphantly, "There, ain't that like the Interpreter said?"
"Uh-huh," agreed the boy. "But yer needn't to worry--her heart's all right. Didn't she give us that there grand ride in her swell autermobile?"
Little Maggie's embarrassment suddenly returned.
"Did you really enjoy the ride?" asked Helen.
Bobby answered, "I'll say we did. Gee! but yer ought to a seen us puttin' it all over everybody in the Flats."
Something in the boy's answer brought another smile to Helen's lips, but it was not a smile of happiness.
"I really must go now," she said, rising. "Thank you for telling me about the happiness jewel. Don't you think that it is time for you to be running along home? Your mother will be wondering where you are, won't she?"
"Uh-huh," agreed Bobby.
But Maggie's mind was fixed upon more important things than the time of day. With an effort, she forced herself to say, "If the fairy comes to yer will yer tell me about it, sometime? I ain't never seen one myself an'--an'--"
"You poor little mite!" said Helen. "Yes, indeed, I will tell you about it if the fairy comes. And I will tell the fairy about you, too. But, who knows, perhaps the happiness fairy will visit you first, and you can tell her about me."
And something that shone in the beautiful face of the young woman, or something that sang in her voice, made little Maggie sure--deep down inside--that her princess lady would find the jewel of happiness, just as the Interpreter had said. But neither the child of the Flats, nor the daughter of the big house on the hill knew that the jewel of happiness was, even at that moment, within reach of the princess lady's hand.
When Helen had disappeared from their sight, the two children started on their way down the hill toward the dingy Flats.
"Gee," said Bobby, "won't we have something to tell the kids now? Gee! We'll sure make 'em sore they wasn't along. Think of us a-talkin' to old Adam Ward's daughter, herself. Gee! Some stunt--I'll tell the world."
They had reached the foot of the old stairway and were discussing whether or not they dared prolong their absence from home by paying a visit to the Interpreter, when a man appeared on the road from town. Bobby caught sight of the approaching stranger first, and the boy's freckled countenance lighted with excited interest and admiration.
"Hully Gee!" he exclaimed, catching Maggie by the arm. "Would yer look who's a-comin'!"
The man was not, in his general appearance, one to inspire a feeling of confidence. He was a little above medium height, with fat shoulders, a thick neck, and dark, heavy features with coarse lips showing through a black beard trimmed to a point, and small black eyes set close above a large nose with flaring nostrils. His clothing was good, and he carried himself with assurance. But altogether there was about him the unmistakable air of a foreigner.
Bobby continued in an excited whisper, "That there's Jake Vodell we've heard Dad an' the men talkin' so much about. He's the guy what's a-goin' to put the fear of God into the Mill bosses and rich folks. He's a-goin' to take away old Adam Ward's money an' Mill, an' autermobiles, an' house an'--everything, an' divide 'em all up 'mong us poor workin' folks. Gee, but he's a big gun, I'm tellin' yer!"
The man came on to the foot of the stairs and stopped before the children. For a long moment he looked them over with speculative interest. "Well," he said, abruptly, "and who are you? That you belong in this neighborhood it is easy to see."
"We're Bobby and Maggie Whaley," answered the boy.
The man's black eyebrows were lifted, and he nodded his head reflectively. "Oh-ho, you are Sam Whaley's kids, heh?"
"Uh-huh," returned Bobby. "An' I know who yer are, too."
"So?" said the man.
"Uh-huh, yer Jake Vodell, the feller what's a-goin' to make all the big bugs hunt their holes, and give us poor folks a chance. Gee, but I'd like to be you!"
The man showed his strong white teeth in a pleased smile. "You are all right, kid," he returned. "I think, maybe, you will play a big part in the cause sometime--when you grow up."
Bobby swelled out his chest with pride at this good word from his hero. "I'm big enough right now to put a stick o' danermite under old Adam Ward's castle, up there on the hill."
Little Maggie caught her brother's arm. "Bobby, yer ain't a-goin'--"
The man laughed. "That's the stuff, kid," he said. "But you better let jobs like that alone--until you are a bit older, heh?"
"Mag an' me has been up there to the castle all this afternoon," bragged the boy. "An' we talked with old Adam's daughter, too, an'--an' everything."
The man stared at him. "What is this you tell me?"
"It's so," returned Bobby, stoutly, "ain't it, Mag? An' the other day Helen Ward, she give us a ride, in her autermobile--while she was a-visitin' with the Interpreter up there."
Jake Vodell's black brows were drawn together in a frown of disapproval. "So this Adam Ward's daughter, too, calls on the Interpreter, heh! Many people, it seems, go to this Interpreter." To Bobby he said suddenly, "Look here, it will be better if you kids stay away from such people--it will get you nothing to work yourselves in with those who are not of your own class!"
"Yes, sir," returned Bobby, dutifully.
"I will tell you what you can do, though," continued the man. "You can tell your father that I want him at the meeting to-night. Think you can remember, heh?"
"Yer bet I can," replied the boy. "But where'll I tell him the meetin' is?"
"Never you mind that," returned the other. "You just tell him I want him--he will know where. And now be on your way."
To Bobby's utter amazement, Jake Vodell went quickly up the steps that led to the Interpreter's hut.
"Gee!" exclaimed the wondering urchin. "What do yer know about that, Mag? He's a-goin' to see our old Interpreter. Gee! I guess the Interpreter's one of us all right. Jake Vodell wouldn't be a-goin' to see him if he wasn't."
As they trudged away through the black dust, the boy added, "Darn it all, Mag, if the Interpreter is one of us what's the princess lady goin' to see him for?"