The Helen of the Old House by Harold Bell Wright
Book I. The Interpreter
Chapter VII. The Hidden Thing
Hiding in the shrubbery, Adam Ward chuckled and grinned with strange glee as he listened to his wife calling for him. Here and there about the grounds she searched anxiously; but the man kept himself hidden and enjoyed her distress. At last, when she had come so near that discovery was certain, he suddenly stepped out from the bushes and, facing her, waited expectantly.
And now, by some miracle, Adam Ward's countenance was transformed--his eyes were gentle, his gray face calm and kindly. His smile became the affectionate greeting of a man who, past the middle years of life, is steadfast in his love for the mother of his grown-up children.
Mrs. Ward had been, in the years of her young womanhood, as beautiful as her daughter Helen. But her face was lined now with care and shadowed by sadness, as though with the success of her husband there had come, also, regrets and disappointments which she had suffered in silence and alone.
She returned Adam's smile of greeting, when she saw him standing there, but that note of anxiety was still in her voice as she said gently, "Where in the world have you been? I have looked all over the place for you."
He laughed as he went to her--a laugh of good comradeship. "I was just sitting over there under that tree," he answered. "I heard you when you called the first time, but thought I would let you hunt a while. The exercise will do you good--keep you from getting too fat in your old age."
She laughed with him, and answered, "Well, you can just come and talk to me now, while I rest."
Arm in arm, they went to the rustic seat in the shade of the tree where, a few minutes before, he had so aimlessly broken the twigs.
But when they were seated the man frowned with displeasure. "Alice, I wish to goodness there was some way to make these men about the place keep a closer watch of things."
She glanced at him quickly. "Has something gone wrong, Adam?"
"Nothing more than usual," he answered, harshly. "There are always a lot of prowlers around. But they don't stay long when I get after them." He laughed, shortly--a mirthless, shamefaced laugh.
"I am sorry you were annoyed," she said, gently.
"Annoyed!" he returned, with the manner of a petulant child. "I'll annoy them. I tell you I am not going to stand for a lot of people's coming here, sneaking and prying around to see what they can see. If anybody wants to enjoy a place like this let him work for it as I have."
She waited a while before she said, as if feeling her way toward a definite point, "It has been hard work, hasn't it, Adam? Almost too hard, I fear. Did you ever ask yourself if, after all, it is really worth the cost?"
"Worth the cost! I am not in the habit of paying more than things are worth. This place cost me exactly--"
She interrupted him, quietly, "I don't mean that, dear. I was not thinking of the money. I was thinking of what it has all cost in work and worry and--and other things."
"It has all been for you and the children, Alice," he answered, wearily; and there was that in his voice and face which brought the tears to her eyes. "You know that, so far as I am personally concerned, it doesn't mean a thing in the world to me. I don't know anything outside of the Mill myself."
She put her hand on his arm with a caressing touch. "I know--I know--and that is just what troubles me. Perhaps if you would share it more--I mean if you could enjoy it more--I might feel different about it. We were all so happy, Adam, in the old house."
When he made no reply to this but sat with his eyes fixed on the ground she said, pleadingly, "Won't you put aside all the cares and worries of the Mill now, and just be happy with us, Adam?"
The man moved uneasily.
"You know what the doctors say," she continued, gently. "You really--"
He interrupted impatiently, "The doctors are a set of fools. I'll show them!"
She persisted with gentle patience. "But even if the doctors are wrong about your health, still there is no reason why you should not rest after all your years of hard work. I am sure we have everything in the world that any one could possibly want. There is not the shadow of a necessity to make you go on wearing your life out as you have been doing."
"Much you know about what is necessary for me to do," he retorted. "A man isn't going to let the business that he has been all his life building up go to smash just because he has made money enough to keep him without work for the rest of his days."
"There are other things that can go to smash besides business, Adam," she returned, sadly. "And I am sure that the Mill will be safe enough now in John's hands."
"John!" he exclaimed, bitterly. "It's John and his crazy ideas that I am afraid of."
She returned, quickly, with a mother's pride, "Why, Adam! You have said so many times how wonderfully well John was doing, and what a splendid head he had for business details and management. It was only last week that you told me John was more capable now than some of the men that have been in the office with you for several years."
Adam Ward rose and paced uneasily up and down before her. "You don't understand at all, Alice. It is not John's business ability or his willingness to get into the harness that worries me. It is the fool notions that he picked up somewhere over there in the war--there, and from that meddlesome old socialist basket maker."
"Just what notions do you mean, Adam? Is it John's friendship with Charlie Martin that you fear?"
"His friendship with young Martin is only part of it. I am afraid of his attitude toward the whole industrial situation. Haven't you heard his wild, impracticable and dangerous theories of applying, as he says, the ideals of patriotism, and love of country, and duty to humanity, and sacrifice, and heroism, and God knows what other nonsense, to the work of the world? You know as well as I do how he talks about the comradeship of the mills and factories and workshops being like the comradeship of the trenches and camps and battlefields. His notions of the relation between an employer and his employees would be funny if they were not so dangerous. Look at his sympathy with the unions! And yet I have shown him on my books where this union business has cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars! Comradeship! Loyalty! I tell you I know what I'm talking about from experience. The only way to handle the working class is to keep them where they belong. Give them the least chance to think you are easy and they are on your neck. If I had my way I'd hold them to their jobs at the muzzle of a machine gun. McIver has the right idea. He is getting himself in shape right now for the biggest fight with labor that he has ever had. Everybody knows that agitator Jake Vodell is here to make trouble. The laboring classes have had a long spell of good times now and they're ripe for anything. All they need is a start and this anarchist is here to start them. And John, instead of lining up with McIver and getting ready to fight them to a finish, is spending his time hobnobbing with Charlie Martin and listening to that old fool Interpreter."
"Come, dear," she said, soothingly. "Come and sit down here with me. Don't let's worry about what may happen."
He obeyed her with the manner of a fretful child. And presently, as she talked, the cloud lifted from his gray, haggard face, and he grew calm. Soon, when she made some smiling remark, he even smiled back at her with the affectionate companionship of their years.
"You will try not to worry about things so much, won't you, Adam?" she said, at last. "For my sake, won't you?"
"But I tell you, Alice, there is serious trouble ahead."
"Perhaps that is all the more reason why you should retire now," she urged. He stirred uneasily, but she continued, "Just suppose the worst that could possibly happen should happen, suppose you even had to give up the Mill to Pete Martin and the men, suppose you lost the new process and everything, and we were obliged to give up our home here and go back to live in the old house--it would still be better than losing you, dear. Don't you know that to have you well and strong would be more to Helen and John and to me than anything else could possibly be?"
Mrs. Ward knew, as the words left her lips, that she had said the wrong thing. She had heard him rave about his ownership of the new process too many times not to know--while any mention of his old workman friend Peter Martin always threw him into a rage. But in her anxiety the forbidden words had escaped her.
She drew back with a little gasp of fear at the swift change that came over his face. As if she had touched a hidden spring in his being the man's countenance was darkened by furious hatred and desperate fear. His trembling lips were ashen; the muscles of his face twitched and worked; his eyes blazed with a vicious anger beyond all control. Springing to his feet, he faced her with a snarling exclamation, and in a voice shaking with passion, cried, "Pete Martin! What is he? Who is he? Everything he has in the world he owes to me. Haven't I kept him in work all these years? Haven't I paid him every cent of his wages? Look at his home. Not many working men have been able to own a place like that. What would he have done without the money I have given him every pay day? I could have turned him out long ago--kicked him out of a job without a cent. He's had all that's coming to him--every penny. I built up the Mill. That new process is mine--it's patented in my name. I have had the best lawyers I could hire to protect it on every possible point. If it hadn't been for my business brain there wouldn't be any new process. What could Pete Martin have done with it--the fool has no more business sense than a baby. I introduced it--I exploited it--I built it up and made it worth what it is, and there isn't a court in the world that wouldn't say I have a legal right to it."
In vain Mrs. Ward tried to soothe him with reassuring words, pleading with him to be calm.
"I know they're after me," he raved. "They have tried all sorts of tricks. There is always some sneaking spy watching for a chance to get me, but I'll fix them. I built the business up and I can tear it down. Let them try to take anything away from me if they dare. I'll burn the Mill and the whole town before I'll give up one cent of my legal rights to Pete Martin or any of his tribe."
Forgetting his companion, the man suddenly started off across the grounds, waving his arms and shaking his fists in wild gestures as he continued his tirade against his old fellow workman. Mrs. Ward knew from experience the uselessness of trying to interfere until he had exhausted himself.
* * * * *
As Helen was returning to the house after her talk with the children, she saw her mother coming slowly from that part of the grounds where the young woman had watched her father. It was evident, even at a distance, that Mrs. Ward was greatly distressed. When the young woman reached her mother's side, Mrs. Ward said, simply, "Your father, dear--he is terribly upset. Go to him, Helen, you can always do more for him than any one else--he needs you."
It was not an easy task for Helen Ward to face her father just then. As she went in search of him she tried to put from her mind all that she had seen and to remember only that he was ill. She found him in the most distant and lonely part of the grounds, sitting with his face buried in his hands--a figure of hopeless despair.
While still some distance away, she forced herself to call cheerily, "Hello, father."
As he raised his head, she turned to pick a few flowers from a near-by bed. When he had had a moment to regain, in a measure, his self-control, she went toward him, arranging her blossoms with careful attention.
Adam Ward watched his daughter as she drew near, much as a condemned man might have watched through the grating of a prison window.
"What is it, father?" she asked, gently, when she had come close to his side. "Another one of your dreadful nervous headaches?"
He put a shaking hand to his brow. "Yes," he said wearily.
"I am so sorry," she returned, sitting down beside him. "You have been thinking too hard again, haven't you?"
"Yes, I guess I have been thinking too hard."
"But you're going to stop all that now, aren't you?" she continued, cheerily. "You're just going to forget the old Mill, and do nothing but rest and play with me."
"Could I learn to play, do you think, Helen?"
"Why, of course you could, father, with me to teach you. That's the best thing I do, you know."
He watched her closely. "And you don't think that I--that I am no longer capable of managing my affairs?"
She laughed gayly. "What a silly question--you capable--you, father, the best brain--the best business executive in Millsburgh. You know that is what everybody says of you. You are just tired, and need a good rest, that is all."
The man's drooping shoulders lifted and his face brightened as he said, slowly, "I guess perhaps you are right, daughter."
"I am sure of it," she returned, eagerly. Then she added brightly, as if prompted by a sudden inspiration, "I'll tell you what you do--ask the Interpreter."
"Ask the Interpreter!"
She nodded, smiling as if she had put a puzzling conundrum to him.
"You mean for me to ask that paralyzed old basket maker's advice? You mean, ask him if I should retire from business?"
Again she nodded with a little laugh; but under her laughter there was a note of earnestness.
"And don't you know," he said, "that it is the Interpreter who is at the bottom of all my trouble?"
"The Interpreter, I tell you, is back of the whole thing. He is the brains of the labor organizations in Millsburgh and has been for years. Why, it was the Interpreter who organized the first union in this district. He has done more to build them up than all the others put together. Pete Martin and Charlie, the ringleaders of the Mill workers' union, are only his active lieutenants. I haven't a doubt but that he is responsible for this agitator Jake Vodell's coming to Millsburgh. That miserable shack on the cliff is the real headquarters of labor in this part of the country. Your Interpreter is a fine one for me to go to for advice. His hut is a fine place for your brother to spend his spare time. It would be a fine thing, right now, with this man Vodell in town, for me to resign and leave the Mill in the hands of John, who is already in the hands of the Interpreter and the Martins and their Mill workers' union!"
As Adam finished, the deep sonorous tones of the great Mill whistle sounded over the community. It was the signal for the closing of the day's work.
Obedient to the habit of years, the Mill owner looked at his watch. In his mind he saw the day force trooping from the building and the night shift coming in. Throughout the entire city, in office and shop and store and home, the people ordered their days by the sound of that whistle, and Adam Ward had been very proud of this recognition accorded him.
Wearily, as one exhausted by a day of hard labor, this man who so feared the power of the Interpreter looked up at his daughter. "I wish I could rest," he said.