The Helen of the Old House by Harold Bell Wright
Book I. The Interpreter
Chapter VIII. While the People Sleep
The Interpreter's hands were busy with his basket weaving; his mind seemingly was occupied more with other things. Frequently he paused to look up from his work and, with his eyes fixed on the Mill, the Flats and the homes on the hillside, apparently considered the life that lay before him and of which he had been for so many years an interested observer and student. On the opposite side of the table, silent Billy was engaged with something that had to do with the manufacturing interests of their strange partnership.
When Jake Vodell reached the landing at the top of the stairway, he stopped to look about the place with curious, alert interest, noting with quick glances every object in the immediate vicinity of the hut, as if fixing them in his mind. Satisfied at last by the thoroughness of his inspection, he went toward the house, but his step on the board walk made no sound. At the outer door of the little hut the man halted again, and again he looked quickly about the premises. Apparently there was no one at home. Silently he entered the room and the next instant discovered the two men on the porch.
The Interpreter's attention at the moment was fixed upon his work and he remained unaware of the intruder's presence, while Jake Vodell, standing in the doorway, regarded the old basket maker curiously, with a contemptuous smile on his bearded lips.
But Billy Rand saw him. A moment he looked at the man in the doorway inquiringly, as he would have regarded any one of the Interpreter's many visitors; then the deaf and dumb man's expression changed. Glancing quickly at his still unobserving companion, he caught up a hatchet that lay among the tools on the table and, with a movement that was not unlike the guarding action of a huge mastiff, rose to his feet. His face was a picture of animal rage; his teeth were bared, his eyes gleamed, his every muscle was tense.
The man in the doorway was evidently no coward, but the smile vanished from his heavy face and his right hand went quickly inside his vest. "What's the matter with you?" he said, sharply, as Billy started toward him with deliberate menace in his movement.
At the sound of the man's voice the Interpreter looked up. One glance and the old basket maker caught the wheels of his chair and with a quick, strong movement rolled himself between the two men--so close to Billy that he caught his defender by the arm. Facing his enraged companion, the Interpreter talked to him rapidly in their sign language and held out his hand for the hatchet. The silent Billy reluctantly surrendered the weapon and drew back to his place on the other side of the table, where he sat glaring at the stranger in angry watchfulness.
The man in the doorway laughed harshly. "They told me I would find a helpless old cripple up here," he said. "I think you are pretty well protected at that."
Regarding the stranger gravely, the Interpreter apologized for his companion. "You can see that Billy is not wholly responsible," he explained. "He is little more than a child mentally; his actions are often apparently governed wholly by that strange instinct which seems to guide the animals. He is very devoted to me."
"He seems to be in earnest all right," said the stranger. "He is a husky brute, too."
The Interpreter, regarding the man inquiringly, almost as if he were seeking in the personality of his visitor the reason for Billy's startling conduct, replied, simply, "He would have killed you."
With a shrug of his thick shoulders, the stranger uninvited came forward and helped himself to a chair, and, with the air of one introducing a person of some importance, said, "I am Vodell--Jake Vodell. You have heard of me, I think, heh?"
"Oh, yes. Indeed, I should say that every one has heard of you, Mr. Vodell. Your work has given you even more than national prominence, I believe."
The man was at no pains to conceal his satisfaction. "I am known, yes."
"It is odd," said the Interpreter, "but your face seems familiar to me, as if I had met you before."
"You have heard me speak somewhere, maybe, heh?"
"No, it cannot be that. You have never been in Millsburgh before, have you?"
"It is strange," mused the old basket maker.
"It is the papers," returned Vodell with a shrug. "Many times the papers have my picture--you must have seen."
"Of course, that is it," exclaimed the Interpreter. "I remember now, distinctly. It was in connection with that terrible bomb outrage in--"
"Sir!" interrupted the other indignantly. "Outrage--what do you mean, outrage?"
"I was thinking of the innocent people who were killed or injured," returned the Interpreter, calmly. "I believe you were also prominent in those western strikes where so many women and children suffered, were you not?"
The labor agitator replied with the exact manner of a scientific lecturer. "It is unfortunate that innocent persons must sometimes be hurt in these affairs. But that is one of the penalties that society must pay for tolerating the conditions that make these industrial wars necessary."
"If I remember correctly, you were in the South, too, at the time that mill was destroyed."
"Oh, yes, they had me in jail there. But that was nothing. I have many such experiences. They are to me very commonplace. Wherever there are the poor laboring men who must fight for their rights, I go. The mines, shops, mills, factories--it is all the same to me. I go wherever I can serve the Cause. I have been in America now ten years, nearly eleven."
"You are not, then, a citizen of this country?"
Jake Vodell laughed contemptuously. "Oh, sure I am a citizen of this country--this great America of fools and cowards that talk all the time so big about freedom and equality, while the capitalist money hogs hold them in slavery and rob them of the property they create. I had to become a citizen when the war came, you see, or they would have sent me away. But for that I would make myself a citizen of some cannibal country first." The old basket maker's dark eyes blazed with quick fire and he lifted himself with sudden strength to a more erect position in his wheel chair. But when he spoke his deep voice was calm and steady. "You have been in our little city nearly a month, I understand."
"Just about. I have been looking around, getting acquainted, studying the situation. One must be very careful to know the right men, you understand. It pays, I find, to go a little slow at first. We will go fast enough later." His thick lips parted in a meaning grin.
The Interpreter's hands gripped the wheels of his chair.
"Everybody tells me I should see you," the agitator continued. "Everywhere it is the same. They all talk of the Interpreter. 'Go to the Interpreter,' they say. When they told me that this great Interpreter is an old white-headed fellow without any legs, I laughed and said, 'What can he do to help the laboring man? He is not good for anything but to sit in a wheel chair and make baskets all the day. I need men.' But they all answer the same thing, 'Go and see the Interpreter.' And so I am here."
When the Interpreter was silent, his guest demanded, harshly, "They are all right, heh? You are a friend to the workingman? Tell me, is it so?"
The old basket maker spoke with quiet dignity. "For twenty-five years Millsburgh has been my home, and the Millsburgh people have been my friends. You, sir, have been here less than a month; I have known you but a few minutes."
Jake Vodell laughed understandingly. "Oh-ho, so that is it? Maybe you like to see my credentials before we talk?"
The Interpreter held up a hand in protest. "Your reputation is sufficient, Mr. Vodell."
The man acknowledged the compliment--as he construed it--with a shrug and a pleased laugh. "And all that is said of you by the laboring class in your little city is sufficient," he returned. "Even the men in McIver's factory tell me you are the best friend that labor has ever had in this place." He paused expectantly.
The man in the wheel chair bowed his head.
"And then," continued Jake Vodell, with a frown of displeasure, "when I come to see you, to ask some questions about things that I should know, what do I hear? The daughter of this old slave-driver and robber--this capitalist enemy of the laboring class--Adam Ward, she comes also to see this Interpreter who is such a friend of the people."
The Interpreter laughed. "And Sam Whaley's children, they come too."
"Oh, yes, that is better. I know Sam Whaley. He is a good man who will be a great help to me. But I do not understand this woman business."
"I have known Miss Ward ever since she was born; I worked in the Mill at the same bench with her father and Peter Martin," said the man in the wheel chair, with quiet dignity.
"I see. It is not so bad sometimes to have a friend or two among these millionaires when there is no danger of it being misunderstood. But this man, who was once a workman and who deserted his class--this traitor, her father--does he also call on you, Mr. Interpreter?"
"Once in a great while," answered the Interpreter.
Jake Vodell laughed knowingly. "When he wants something, heh?" Then, with an air of taking up the real business of his visit to the little hut on the cliff, he said, "Suppose now you tell me something about this son of Adam Ward. You have known him since he was a boy too--the same as the girl?"
"Yes," said the Interpreter, "I have known John Ward all his life."
Something in the old basket maker's voice made Jake Vodell look at him sharply and the agitator's black brows were scowling as he said, "So--you are friends with him, too, I guess, heh?"
"I am, sir; and so is Captain Charlie Martin, who is the head of our Mill workers' union, as you may have heard."
"Exactly. That is why I ask. So many of the poor fools who slave for this son of Adam Ward in the Mill say that he is such a fine man--so kind. Oh, wonderful! Bah! When was the wolf whelped that would be kind to a rabbit? You shall tell me now about the friendship between this wolf cub of the capitalist Mill owner and this poor rabbit, son of the workman Peter Martin who has all his life been a miserable slave in the Mill. They were in the army together, heh?"
"They enlisted in the same company when the first call came and were comrades all through the worst of the fighting in France."
"And before that, they were friends, heh?"
"They had been chums as boys, when the family lived in the old house next door to the Martins. But during the years that John was away in school and college Adam moved his family to the place on the hill where they live now. When John was graduated and came home to stay, he naturally found his friends in another circle. His intimacy with Pete Martin's boy was not renewed--until the war."
"Exactly," grunted Jake Vodell. "And how did Adam Ward like it that his boy should go to war? Not much, I think. It was all right for the workman's boy to go; but the Mill owner's son--that was different, heh?"
There was a note of pride in the Interpreter's voice, as he answered, "Adam was determined that the boy should not go at all, even if he were drafted. But John said that it was bad enough to let other men work to feed and clothe him in ordinary times of peace without letting them do his fighting for him as well."
"This Adam Ward's son said that!" exclaimed the agitator. "Huh--it was for the effect--a grand-stand play."
"He enlisted," retorted the Interpreter. "And when his father would have used his influence to secure some sort of commission with an easy berth, John was more indignant than ever. He said if he ever wore shoulder straps they would be a recognition of his service to his country and not, as he put it, a pretty gift from a rich father. So he and Charlie Martin both enlisted as privates, and, as it happened, on the same day. Under such circumstances it was quite as natural that their old friendship should be reestablished as that they should have drifted apart under the influence of Adam Ward's prosperity."
Jake Vodell laughed disagreeably. "And then this wonderful son of your millionaire Mill owner comes out of the war and the army exactly as he went in, nothing but a private--not even a medal--heh? But this workman from the Mill, he comes back a captain with a distinguished service medal? I think maybe Private Ward's father and mother and sister liked that--no?"
Disregarding these comments, the Interpreter said, "Now that I have answered your questions about the friendship of John Ward and Charlie Martin, may I ask just why you are so much interested in the matter?"
The agitator gazed at the man in the wheel chair with an expression of incredulous amazement. "Is it possible you do not understand?" he demanded. "And you such a friend to the workingman! But wait--one more thing, then I will answer you. This daughter of Adam Ward--she is also good friends with her old playmate who is now Captain Martin, is she? The workman goes sometimes to the big house on the hill to see his millionaire friends, does he?"
The Interpreter answered, coldly, "I can't discuss Miss Ward with you, sir."
"Oh-ho! And now I will answer your question as to my interest. This John Ward is already a boss in the Mill. His father, everybody tells me, is not well. Any time now the old man may retire from the business and the son will have his place as general manager. He will be the owner. The friendship between these two men is not good--because Charlie Martin is the leader of the union and there can be no such friendship between a leader of the laboring class and one of the employer class without great loss to our Cause. You will see. These rich owners of the Mill, they will flatter and make much of this poor workman captain because of his influence among the people who slave for them, and so any movement to secure for the workmen their rights will be defeated. Do you understand now, Mister basket maker, heh?"
The Interpreter bowed his head.
The agitator continued. "Already I find it very hard to accomplish much with this Mill workers' union. Except for our friend, Sam Whaley, and a few others, the fools are losing their class loyalty. Their fighting spirit is breaking down. It will not do, I tell you. At the McIver factory it is all very different. It will be easy there. The workingmen show the proper spirit--they will be ready when I give the word. But I am not pleased with the situation in this Mill of Adam Ward's. This fine friendship between the son of the owner and the son of the workman must stop. Friendship--bah!--it is a pretense, a sham, a trick."
The man's manner, when he thus passed judgment upon the comradeship of John and Charlie, was that of an absolute monarch who was righteously annoyed at some manifestation of disloyalty among his subjects. His voice was harsh with the authority of one whose mandates are not to be questioned. His countenance was dark with scowling displeasure.
"And you, too, my friend," he went on, glaring from under his black brows at the old man in the wheel chair, "you will be wise if you accept my suggestion and be a little careful yourself. It is not so bad, perhaps, this young woman coming to see you, but I am told that her brother also comes to visit with the Interpreter. And this leader of the Mill workers' union, Charlie Martin, he comes, too. Everybody says you are the best friend of the working people. But I tell you there cannot be friendship between the employer class and the laboring class--it must be between them always war. So, Mr. Interpreter, you must look out. The time is not far when the people of Millsburgh will know for sure who is a friend to the labor class and who is a friend to the employer class."
The Interpreter received this warning from Jake Vodell exactly as he had listened to Bobby Whaley's boyish talk about blowing up the castle of Adam Ward on the hill.
Rising abruptly, the agitator, without so much as a by-your-leave, went into the house where he proceeded to examine the books and periodicals on the table. Billy started from his place to follow, but the Interpreter shook his head forbiddingly, and while Jake Vodell passed on to the farther corner of the room and stood looking over the well filled shelves of the Interpreter's library, the old basket maker talked to his companion in their silent language.
When this foreign defender of the rights of the American laboring class returned to the porch he was smiling approval. "Good!" he said. "You are all right, I think. No man could read the papers and books that you have there, and not be the friend of freedom and a champion of the people against their capitalist masters. We will have a great victory for the Cause in Millsburgh, comrade. You shall see. It is too bad that you do not have your legs so that you could take an active part with me in the work that I will do."
The Interpreter smiled. "If you do not mind, I would like to know something of your plans. That is," he added, courteously, "so far as you are at liberty to tell me."
"Certainly I will tell you, comrade," returned the other, heartily. "Who can say--it may be that you will be of some small use to me after all." His eyes narrowed slyly. "It may be that for these Mill owners to come to you here in your little hut is perhaps not so bad when we think about it a little more, heh? The daughter of Adam Ward might be led to say many foolish little things that to a clever man like you would be understood. Even the brother, the manager of the Mill--well, I have known men like him to talk of themselves and their plans rather freely at times when they thought there was no harm. And what possible harm could there be in a poor crippled old basket maker like you, heh?" The man laughed as though his jest were perfectly understood and appreciated by his host--as, indeed, it was.
"But about my plans for this campaign in Millsburgh," he went on. "You know the great brotherhood that I represent and you are familiar with their teachings of course." He gestured comprehensively toward the Interpreter's library.
The man in the wheel chair silently nodded assent.
Jake Vodell continued. "I am come to Millsburgh, as I go everywhere, in the interests of our Cause. It is my experience that I can always work best through the unions."
The Interpreter interrupted. "Oh, one of our Millsburgh unions sent for you then? I did not know."
The agitator shrugged his shoulders impatiently. "No--no--I was not sent for. I was sent. I am here because it was reported that there was a good opportunity to advance the Cause. No union brings me. I come to the unions, to work with them for the freedom of the laboring class."
"And of what union are you a member, sir?" asked the Interpreter.
"Me! Ha! I am not a member of any of your silly American unions! I belong to that greater union, if you please, which embraces them all. But your unions know and receive me as a leader because of the work that I do for all. Our Cause is the cause of the working people of America, as it is the cause of the laboring classes in England, and France, and Russia, and Germany, and everywhere in the world."
Again the old basket maker bowed his silent assent.
"You have, in this place," continued the agitator, "one strong union of the Mill workers. In the other shops and factories and in the trades it is like McIver's factory, the men are not so well organized."
Again the Interpreter interrupted. "The working people of Millsburgh, generally, receive the highest wage paid anywhere in the country, do they not?"
"Ah, but surely that is not the question, comrade. Surely you understand that all the laboring people of America must be united in one brotherhood with all the other countries of the world, so that they, the producers of wealth, shall be able to take possession of, and operate, the industries of this country, and finally take this government away from the capitalist class who are now the real owners of what you call your 'land of the free and the home of the brave.' Bah! You fool Americans do not know the first meaning of the word freedom. You are a nation of slaves. If you were as brave as you sing, you very soon would be your own masters."
"And your plan for Millsburgh?" asked the Interpreter, calmly.
"It is simple. But for this John Ward and his friendship with Charlie Martin that so deceives everybody, it will be easy. The first step in my campaign here will be to call out the employees of McIver's factory on a strike. I start with McIver's workmen because his well-known position against the laboring class will make it easy for me to win the sympathy of the public for the strikers."
"But," said the Interpreter, "the factory union is working under an agreement with McIver."
The self-appointed savior of the American working people shrugged his heavy shoulders disdainfully. "That is no matter--it is always easy to find a grievance. When the factory men have walked out, then will come the sympathetic strike of your strong Mill workers' union. All the other labor organizations will be forced to join us, whether they wish to or not. I shall have all Millsburgh so that not a wheel can turn anywhere. The mills--the factories--the builders--the bakeries-- everything will be in our hands and then, my comrade, then!"
The man rose to his feet and stood looking out over the life that lay within view from the Interpreter's balcony-porch, as if possessed with the magnitude of the power that would be his when this American community should be given into his hand.
Silent, watchful Billy stirred uneasily.
The Interpreter, touching his companion's arm, shook his head.
Jake Vodell, deep in his ambitious dream, did not notice. "The time is coming, comrade," he said, "and it is nearer than the fool Americans think, when the labor class will rise in their might and take what is theirs. My campaign here in Millsburgh, you must know, is only one of the hundreds of little fires that we are lighting all over this country. The American people, they are asleep. They have drugged themselves with their own talk of how safe and strong and prosperous they are. Bah! There is no people so easy to fool. They think we strike for recognition of some union, or that it is for higher wages, or some other local grievance. Bah! We use for an excuse anything that will give us a hold on the labor class. These silly unions, they are nothing in themselves. But we--we can use them in the Cause. And so everywhere--North, South, East, West--we light our little fires. And when we are ready--Boom! One big blaze will come so quick from all points at once that it will sweep the country before the sleeping fools wake up. And then--then, comrade, you shall see what will happen to your capitalist vultures and your employer swine, who have so long grown fat on the strength of the working class."
A moment longer he stood as if lost in the contemplation of the glory of that day, when, in the triumph of his leadership, the people of the nation he so despised and hated would rise in bloody revolution against their own government and accept in its stead the dictatorship of lawless aliens who profess allegiance to no one but their own godless selves.
Then he turned back to the Interpreter with a command, "You, comrade, shall keep me informed, heh? From these people of our enemy class who come here to your hut, you will learn the things I will want to know. I shall come to you from time to time, but not too often. But, you must see that your watchdog there has better manners for me, heh?" He laughed and was gone.
At the club that evening, Jim McIver sat with a group of men discussing the industrial situation.
"They're fixing for a fight all right," said one. "What do you think, Jim?"
The factory owner answered, "They can have a fight any time they want it. Nothing but a period of starvation will ever put the laboring class back where it belongs and the sooner we get it over the better it will be for business conditions all around."
In the twilight dust and grime of the Flats, a woman sat on the doorstep of a wretched house. Her rounded shoulders slouched wearily--her tired hands were folded in her lap. She stared with dull, listless eyes at the squalid homes of her neighbors across the street. The Interpreter had described the woman to Helen--"a girl with fine instincts for the best things of life and a capacity for great happiness."
In a room back of a pool hall of ill-repute, the man Jake Vodell sat in conference with three others of his brotherhood. A peculiar knock sounded at the door. Vodell drew the bolt. Sam Whaley entered. "My kids told me you wanted me," said the workman. Long into the night, on the balcony porch of the hut on the cliff, John Ward and Captain Charlie Martin talked with the Interpreter. As they talked, they watched the lights of the Mill, the Flats, the business streets, and the homes.