The Helen of the Old House by Harold Bell Wright
Book I. The Interpreter
Chapter IX. The Mill
It was pay day at the Mill.
No one, unless he, at some period in his life, has been absolutely dependent upon the wages of his daily toil, can appreciate a pay day. To experience properly the thrill of a pay day one must have no other source of income. The pay check must be the only barrier between one and actual hunger. Bobby and Maggie Whaley knew the full meaning of pay day. Their mother measured life itself by that event.
Throughout the great industrial hive that morning there was an electrical thrill of anticipation. Smiles were more frequent; jests were passed with greater zest; men moved with a freer step, a more joyous swing. The very machinery seemed in some incomprehensible way to be animated with the spirit of the workmen, while the droning, humming, roaring voice of the Mill was unquestionably keyed to a happier note. In the offices among the bookkeepers, clerks, stenographers and the department heads, the same brightening of the atmosphere was noticeable. Nor was the spirit of the event confined to the Mill itself; throughout the entire city--in the stores and banks, the post office, the places of amusement, in the homes on the hillside and in the Flats--pay day at the Mill was the day of days.
It was an hour, perhaps, after the whistle had started the big plant for the afternoon.
John Ward was deep in the consideration of some business of moment with the superintendent, George Parsons--a sturdy, square-jawed, steady-eyed, middle-aged man, who had come up from the ranks by the sheer force of his natural ability.
* * * * *
There is nothing at all unusual about John Ward. He is simply a good specimen of the more intelligent class of our young American manhood, with, it might be, a more than average mind for business, which he had inherited from his father. He is, in short, a fair type of the healthy, clean-living, straight-thinking, broad-gauged, big-hearted young citizen such as one may find by the hundreds of thousands in the many fields of our national activities. In our arts and industries, in our banks and commercial houses, in our factories and newspapers, on our farms and in our professions, in our educational institutions, among our writers and scientists, in our great transportation organizations, and in the business of our government, our John Wards are to be found, ready to take the places left to them by the passing of their fathers.
Since his return from the war, the young man had devoted himself with the enthusiasm of a great purpose to a practical study of his father's big industrial plant. Adam still held the general management, but his son knew that the time must come when the responsibility of that position would fall to him.
With John's inherited executive ability and his comradeship, plus the driving force of his fixed and determined purpose, it was not strange that he so quickly gained the loyal support and cooperation of his father's long-trained assistants. His even-tempered friendliness and ready recognition of his dependence upon his fellow workers won their love. His industry, his clear-headed, open-minded consideration of the daily problems presented, with his quick grasp of essential details, commanded their admiring respect. Under the circumstance of his father's nervous trouble and the consequent enforced absence of Adam from his office for more and more frequent periods, it was inevitable that John, by common, if silent, consent of the executive heads, should be advanced more and more toward the general manager's desk.
The superintendent, gathering up his blue prints and memoranda, arose. "And will that be all, sir?" he asked, with a smile.
Nearly every one smiled when he finished an interview with Adam Ward's son; probably because John himself nearly always smiled when he ended a consultation or gave an order.
"That's all from my side, George," he said, leaning back in his chair and looking up at the superintendent in his open, straightforward way that so surely invited confidence and trust. "Have you anything else on your mind?"
"Nary a thing, John," returned the older man, and with a parting "so long" he started toward the door that opened into the Mill.
With that smile of genuine affection still lingering on his face, John watched the sturdy back of the old superintendent as if, for the moment, his thoughts had swung from George Parsons' work to George Parsons himself.
The superintendent opened the door and was about to step out when he stopped suddenly and with a quick, decided movement drew back into the room and closed the door again. To the young man in the other end of the big office it looked as though the superintendent had seen something that startled him. Another moment and George was again bending over John's desk.
"The old man is out there, John."
"What! Father! Why I had no idea that he was coming down to-day." A look of anxiety came into the frank gray eyes. "He has not been so well lately, George. I wonder why he didn't come to the office first as usual."
"He sometimes slips in back that way, you know," returned the superintendent.
"He really ought not to be here," said the young man. "I wish--" He hesitated.
"He's generally in a state of mind when he comes in like that," said George. "You're not needing a goat, are you, boy?"
John smiled. "There's not a thing wrong in the plant so far as I know, George."
"I don't know of anything either," returned the other, "but we may not know all the way. There's one thing sure, the old man ought not to be wandering through the works alone. There's some of those rough-necks would--well it's too darned easy, sometimes, for accidents to happen, do you see? I'll rustle out there and stick around convenient like. You'd better stay where you are as if you didn't know he was on the job. And remember, son, if you should need a goat, I'm qualified. If anything has happened--whether it has or he only thinks it has--just you blame it on to old George. I'll understand."
The work was at the height of its swing when burly Max Gardner paused a second to straighten his back and wipe the sweat from his sooty face. As he stooped again to his heavy task, he said to his mates in a voice that rumbled up from the depths of his naked, hairy chest, "Get a gate on y'--get a gate on y'--y' rough-necks. 'Tis th' boss that's a-lookin' 'round to see who he'll be tyin' th' can to next."
The men laughed.
"There's one thing sure," said Bill Connley, who looked as though his body were built of rawhide stretched over a framework of steel, "when John Ward ties the can to a man, that man knows what 'tis for. When he give Jim Billings his time last week, he says to him, says he, 'Jim, I'm sorry for y'. Not because I'm fir'in' y',' says he, 'but because y're such a loafer that y're no good to yerself nor to anybody else--y're a disgrace to the Mill,' says he, 'and to every honest working man in it.' An' Jim, he never give a word back--just hung his head an' got out of sight like a dog with his tail between his legs after a good swift kick."
"An' th' young boss was right at that," commented sturdy Soot Walters. "Jim was a good man when he was new on the job, but since he got the wrinkles out of his belly, he's been killin' more time than any three men in the works."
"Pass me that pinch bar, Bill," called Dick Grant from the other side. As he reached for the tool, his glance took in the figure that had caught the eye of big Max. "Holy Mike!" he exclaimed, "'tis the old man himself."
Every man in the group except Max turned his face toward Adam Ward, who stood some distance away, and a very different tone marked the voice of Bill Connley as he said, "Now what d'ye think brings that danged old pirate here to look us over this day?"
"Who the devil cares?" growled Scot, as, with an air of sullen indifference, they turned again to their work.
* * * * *
No one seeing the Mill owner as he viewed his possessions that day could have believed that this was the wretched creature that Helen had watched from the arbor. Away from the scenes of his business life Adam Ward was like some poor, nervous, half-insane victim of the drug habit. At the Mill, he was that same drug fiend under the influence of his "dope."
His manner was calm and steady, with no sign of nervousness or lack of control. His gray face--which, in a way, was the face of a student--gave no hint of the thoughts and emotions that stirred within him. As he looked about the great industrial institution to which he had given himself, body, mind and soul, all the best years of his life, his countenance was as expressionless as the very machines of iron and steel and wood among which he moved--a silent, lonely, brooding spirit. No glow of worthy pride in the work of his manhood, no gleam of friendly comradeship for his fellow workmen, no joy of his kinship with the great humanity that was here personified shone in his eyes or animated his presence. Cold and calculating, he looked upon the human element in the Mill exactly as he looked upon the machinery. Men cost him a certain definite sum of dollars; they must be made to return to him a certain increase in definite dollars on that cost. The living bodies, minds, and souls that, moving here and there in the haze of smoke and steam and dust, vitalized the inanimate machinery and gave life and intelligent purpose to the whole, were no more to him than one of his adding machines in the office that, mechanically obedient to his touch, footed up long columns of dollars and cents. It is not strange that the humanity of the Mill should respond to the spirit of its owner with the spirit of his adding machines and give to him his totals of dollars and cents--with nothing more.
Quickly the feeling of Adam Ward's presence spread throughout the busy plant. Smiling faces grew grim and sullen. In the place of good-natured jest and cheerful laugh there were muttered curses and contemptuous epithets. The very atmosphere seemed charged with antagonism and rebellious hatred.
"Wad ye look at it?" said one. "And they tell me that white-faced old devil used to work along side of Pete and the Interpreter at that same bench where Pete's a-workin' yet."
"He did that," said another. "I was a kid in the Mill at the time; 'twas before he got hold of his new process."
"Pete Martin is a better man than Adam Ward ever was or will be at that--process or no process," said a third, while every man within hearing endorsed the sentiment with a hearty word, an oath or a pointed comment.
"But the young boss is a different sort, though," came from the first speaker.
"He is that!"
"The boy's all right."
"John's a good man."
A workman with a weak face and shifty eyes paused in passing to say, "You'll find out how different the boy is onct he's put to the test. He's the same breed, an' it's just like Jake Vodell said last night, there ain't one of the greedy capitalist class that wouldn't nail a laboring man to the cross of their damnable system of slavery if they dast."
A silence fell over the group.
Then a dry voice drawled, "Jake Vodell ain't never overworked himself as anybody knows of, has he? As for you, Sam Whaley, I'm thinkin' it would take somethin' more than a crucifyin' to get much profit out of you, the way you mooch around."
There was a general laugh at this and Sam Whaley went on his weak way to do whatever it was that he was supposed to be doing.
"Sam's all right, Bob," said one who had laughed. "His heart is in the right place."
"Sure he is," agreed Bob. "But I sometimes can't help thinkin', just the same, that if I was a-ownin' and a-workin' slaves, I'd consider him a mighty poor piece of property."
When Adam Ward entered the office, some time later, he walked straight to his son's desk, without so much as a glance or a nod of recognition toward any other soul in the big room.
"I want to talk with you, John," he said, grimly, and passed on into his private office.
The closing of the door of that sacred inner room behind John was the signal for a buzz of excited comments.
"Lordy," gasped a stenographer to her nearest neighbor, "but I'm sorry for poor young Mr. Ward--did you see the old man's face?"
The half-whispered remark expressed, with fair accuracy, the general sentiment of the entire force.
Adam Ward did not sit down at his desk, but going to a window he stood looking out as though deep in thought.
"Father," said John, at last, "what is it? Has anything happened?"
Adam turned slowly, and it was evident that he was holding his self-control by a supreme effort of will. "I have made up my mind to quit," he said. "From to-day on you will take my place and assume my responsibilities in the Mill."
"I am glad, father," said John, simply, "You really should be free from all business cares. As for my taking your place in the Mill," he smiled, "no one could ever do that, father."
"You have full control and absolute authority from to-day on," returned Adam. "I shall never put my foot inside the doors of the plant or the office again."
"But, father!" cried John. "There is no need for you to--"
Adam interrupted him with an imperious gesture. "There is no use arguing about it," he said, coldly. "But there are two or three things that I want to tell you--that I think you ought to know. You can take them from me or not, as you please. My ideas and policies that made this institution what it is to-day will probably be thrown aside as so much worthless junk, but I am going to give you a word or two of warning just the same."
John knew that when his father was in this mood there was nothing to do but to keep silent. But the expression of the old Mill owner's face filled his son's heart with pity, and the boy could not refrain from saying, "I am sorry you feel that way about it, father, because really you are all wrong. Can't we sit down and talk it over comfortably?"
"I prefer to stand," returned Adam. "I can say all I have to say in a few words. I am retiring because I know, now, after"--he hesitated--"after the last two nights, that I must. I am turning the Mill over to you because I would rather burn it to the ground than see it in the hands of any one outside the family. I believe, too, that the only way to get the wild, idiotic ideas of that old fool basket maker out of your head is to make you personally responsible for the success or failure of this business. I have watched you long enough to know that you have the ability to handle it, and I am convinced that once you realize how much money you can make, you will drop all your sentimental nonsense and get your feet on solid ground."
John Ward's cheeks flushed, but he made no reply to his father's pointed observations.
"I had those same romantic notions about work and business myself when I was your age," continued Adam, "but experience taught me better. Experience will teach you." He paused and went to stand at the window again.
Presently Adam faced about once more. "I suppose you have noticed that McIver is greatly interested in your sister Helen?"
"I imagined so," returned John, soberly. "Well, he is. He wants to marry her. If she will only be sensible and see it right, it is a wonderful opportunity for us. McIver made over a million out of the war. His factory is next to this in size and importance and it is so closely related to the Mill that a combination of the two industries, with the control of the new process, would give you a tremendous advantage. You could practically put all competitors out of business. McIver has approached me several times on the proposition but I have been holding off, hoping that Helen would accept him, so that their marriage would tie the thing up that much tighter. You and McIver, with the family relation established by Helen, would make a great team." He hesitated and his face worked with nervous emotion as he added, "There is something about the new process that--perhaps--you should know--I--" He stopped abruptly to pace up and down the room in nervous excitement, as if fighting for the mastery of the emotions aroused by this mention of his patented property.
As John Ward watched his father and felt the struggle within the man's secret self, the room seemed suddenly filled with the invisible presence of that hidden thing. The younger man's eyes filled with tears and he cried in protest, "Father--father--please don't--"
For a moment Adam Ward faced his son in silence. Then, with a sigh of relief, he muttered, "It's all right, John; just one of my nervous attacks. It's gone now."
Changing the subject abruptly, he said, "I must warn you, my boy--keep away from the Interpreter. Have nothing to do with him; he is dangerous. And watch out for Pete Martin and Charlie, too. They are all three together. This agitator, Jake Vodell, is going to make trouble. He is already getting a start with McIver's men. You have some radicals right here on your pay roll, but if you stick with McIver and follow his lead you will come through easily and put these unions where they belong. That's all, I guess," he finished, wearily. "Call in your superintendent."
"Just a moment, father," said John Ward, steadily. "It is not fair to either of us for me to accept the management of the Mill without telling you that I can't do all that you have suggested."
Adam looked at his son sharply. "And what can't you do?" he demanded.
"I shall never work with McIver in any way," answered John slowly. "You know what I think of him and his business principles. Helen's interest in him is her own affair, but I have too great a sense of loyalty to my country and too much self-respect ever to think of McIver as anything but a traitor and an enemy."
"And what else?" asked Adam.
"I will not promise to keep away from the Interpreter. I reserve the right to choose my own friends and business associates, and I will deal with the employees of the Mill and with the unions without regard to McIver's policies or any consideration of his interest in any way whatever."
For a long moment Adam Ward looked at his son who stood so straight and uncompromisingly soldier-like before him. Suddenly, to John's amazement, his father laughed. And there was not a little admiration and pride in the old Mill owner's voice as he said, "I see! In other words, if you are going to be the boss, you don't propose to have any strings tied to you."
"Would you, sir?" asked John.
"No, I wouldn't," returned Adam and laughed again. "Well, go ahead. Have it your own way. I am not afraid for you in the long run. You are too much like me not to find out where your own interests lie, once you come squarely up against the situation. I only wanted to help you, but it looks as though you would have to go through the experience for yourself. It's all right, son, go to it! Now call George."
When the superintendent entered the private office, Adam Ward said, briefly, "George, I am turning the Mill over to John here. From to-day on he is the manager without any strings on him in any way. He has the entire responsibility and is the only authority. He accounts to no one but himself. That is all."
Abruptly Adam Ward left the private office. Without even a look toward the men in the big outer room who had served with him for years, he passed on out to the street.
When the whistle sounded, John went out into the Mill to stand near the window where the workmen passing in line received their envelopes.
From every part of the great main building, from the yards and the several outer sheds and structures they came. From furnace and engine and bench and machine they made their way toward that given point as scattered particles of steel filings are drawn toward a magnet. The converging paths of individuals touched, and two walked side by side. Other individuals joined the two and as quickly trios and quartets came together to form groups that united with other similar groups; while from the mass thus assembled, the thin line was formed that extended past the pay clerk's window and linked the Mill to the outer world.
In that eager throng of toilers Adam Ward's son saw men of almost every race: Scotchmen greeted Norwegians; men from Ireland exchanged friendly jests with men from Italy; sons of England laughed with the sons of France; Danes touched elbows with Dutchmen; and men from Poland stood shoulder to shoulder with men whose fathers fought with Washington. And every man was marked alike with the emblems of a common brotherhood--the brotherhood of work. Their faces were colored with the good color of their toil--with the smoke of their furnaces, and the grime of their engines, and the oil from their machines mixed with the sweat of their own bodies. Their clothing was uniform with the insignia of their united endeavor. And to the newly appointed manager of the Mill, these men of every nation were comrades in a common cause, spending the strength of their manhood for common human needs. He saw that only in the work of the world could the brotherhood of man be realized; only in the Mill of life's essential industries could the nations of the earth become as one.
In that gathering of workmen the son of Adam Ward saw men of many religions, sects and creeds: Christians and pagans; Catholics and Protestants; men who worshiped the God of Abraham and men who worshiped no God; followers of strange fanatical spiritualism and followers of a stranger materialism. And he saw those many shades of human beliefs blended and harmonized--brought into one comprehensive whole by the power of the common necessities of human life.
He saw that the unity of the warring religions of the world would not be accomplished in seminaries of speculative theological thought, but that in the Mill of life the spiritual brotherhood of all mankind would be realized. In work, he saw the true worship of a common God whose vice-regent on earth is humanity itself.
In that pay-day assembly John saw men of middle age to whom the work into which they daily put the strength of their lives meant nothing less than the lives of their families. In the families dependent upon the Mill he saw the life of the nation dependent upon the nation's industries. As he saw in the line men old and gray and bent with the toil of many years, he realized how the generation of this day is indebted for every blessing of life--for life itself, indeed--to these veterans of the Mill who have given, their years in work that the nation might, through its industries, live and, in the building up of its industries, grow strong.
As he watched the men of his own age, he thought how they, too, must receive the torch from the failing hands of their passing fathers, and in the Mill prove their manhood's right to carry the fire of their country's industrial need.
And there were boys on the edge of manhood, who must be, by the Mill, trained in work for the coming needs of their country; who must indeed find their very manhood itself in work, or through all their years remain wards of the people--a burden upon humanity--the weakness of the nation. For as surely as work is health and strength and honor and happiness and life, so surely is idleness disease and weakness and shame and misery and death.
The home builder, the waster, the gambler, the loyal citizen, the slacker, the honest and dishonest--they were all there at the pay window of the Mill. And to each the pay envelope meant a different thing. To big Max the envelope meant an education for his son. To Bill Connley it meant food and clothing for his brood of children. To young Scot it meant books for his study. To others it meant medicine or doctors for sick ones at home. To others it meant dissipation and dishonor. To all alike those pay envelopes meant Life.
As these men of the Mill passed the son of Adam Ward, there were many smiling nods and hearty words of greeting. Now and then one would speak a few words about his work. Others passed a laughing jest. Many who were his comrades in France gave him the salute of their military days--half in fun, but with a hint of underlying seriousness that made the act a recognition of his rank in the industrial army.
And John returned these greetings in the same good spirit of fellowship. To one it was, "Hello, Tony, how is that new baby at your house?" To another, whose hand was swathed in a dirty bandage, "Take care of that hand, Mack; don't get funny with it just because it's well enough to use again." To another, "How is the wife, Frank, better? Good, that's fine." Again it was, "You fellows on number six machine made a record this week." Again, "Who's the hoodoo on number seven furnace?--four accidents in six days is going some--better look around for your Jonah." And again, "I heard about that stunt of yours, Bill; the kid would have been killed sure if you hadn't kept your head and nerve. It was great work, old man." And to a lad farther down the line, "You'll know better next time, won't you, son?" But there were some who passed John Ward with averted faces or downcast eyes. Here and there there were sneering, vicious glances and low muttered oaths and curses and threats. Not infrequently the name of Jake Vodell was mentioned with approved quotations from the agitator's speeches of hatred against the employer class.
The last of the long line of workmen was approaching the window when Pete Martin greeted the son of his old bench mate with a smile of fatherly affection and pride.
"Hello, Uncle Pete," returned John. "Where is Charlie?"
"I'm sure I don't know, John," the old man answered, looking about. "I supposed he had gone on, I was a little slow myself."
"There he is," said John, as the soldier workman came running from a distant part of the building.
When Captain Charlie came up to them, his father moved on to the window so that for a moment the two friends were alone.
"It's come, Charlie," said John, in a low tone. "Father told me and gave it out to the superintendent to-day."
"Hurrah!" said Charlie Martin, and he would have said more but his comrade interrupted him.
"Shut up, will you? We must go out to the hill to-morrow for a talk. I'll come for you early."
"Right!" said Charlie with a grin, "but may I be permitted to say congratulations?"
"Congratulations your foot!" returned the new general manager. "It's going to be one whale of a job, old man."
The last of the stragglers came near and Charlie Martin moved on, in his turn, to the pay window.
When John arrived home in the late afternoon, his sister met him with many joyful exclamations. "Is father in earnest? Are you really to take his place, John?"
John laughed. "You would have thought he was in earnest if you had heard him." Then he asked, soberly, "Where is father, Helen; is he all right?"
"He has been shut up in his room all alone ever since he told us," she returned, sadly. "I do hope he will be better now that he is to have complete rest."
As if determined to permit no cloud to mar the joy of the occasion, she continued, with eager interest, "Do tell me about it, brother. Were the men in the office glad? Aren't you happy and proud? And how did the workmen take it?"
"The people in the office were very nice," he answered, smiling back at her. "Good old George looked a little like he wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. The men in the plant don't know yet, except Charlie--I told him."
A little shadow fell over Helen's happy face and she looked away. "I suppose of course you would tell Charlie Martin the first thing," she said, slowly. Then, throwing her arm suddenly about his neck, she kissed him. "You are a dear, silly, sentimental old thing, but I am as proud as I can be of you."
"As for that," returned John, "I guess it must run in the family somehow. I notice little things now and then that make me think my sister may not always be exactly a staid, matter-of-fact old lady owl."
When he had laughed at her blushes, and had teased her as a brother is in duty bound, he said, seriously, "Will you tell me something, Helen? Something that I want very much to know--straight from you."
"What is it, John?"
"Are you going to marry Jim McIver?"
"How do you know that he wants me?"
"Father told me to-day. Don't fence please, dear. Either tell me straight out or tell me to mind my own business."
She replied with straightforward honesty, "Mr. McIver has asked me, John, but I can't tell you what my answer will be. I don't know myself."