Tom shivered and covered her face. Who was more lonely than she—she who had hungered for the same companionship that she was denying Jennie; she who had longed for somebody to stand between her and the world, some hand to touch, some arm to lean on; she who must play the man always—the man and the mother too!
Pop went on, stroking her strong, firm hand with his stiff, shriveled fingers. He never looked at her; his face was now too turned toward the dying sun.
"Do ye remimber the day ye left me in the ould counthry, Mary, wid yer own Tom; an' how I walked wid ye to the turnin' of the road? It wuz spring thin, an' the hedges all white wid blossoms. Look at thim two over there, Mary, wid their arms full o' flowers. Don't be breakin' their hearts, child."
Tom turned and slipped her arm around the old man's neck, her head sinking on his shoulder. The tears were under her eyelids; her heart was bursting; only her pride sustained her. Then in a half-whispered voice, like a child telling its troubles, she said:—
"Ye don't know—ye don't know, Gran'pop. The dear God knows it's not on account of meself. It's Tom I'm thinkin' of night an' day—me Tom, me Tom. She's his child as well as mine. If he could only help me! He wanted such great things for Jennie. It ud be easier if he hadn't saved Patsy. Don't speak to me ag'in about it, father dear; it hurts me."
The old man rose from his chair and walked slowly into the house. All his talks with his daughter ended in this way. It was always what Tom would have thought. Why should a poor crazy cripple like her husband, shut up in an asylum, make trouble for Jennie?
When the light faded and the trees grew indistinct in the gloom, Tom still sat where Pop had left her. Soon the shadows fell in the little valley, and the hill beyond the cedars lost itself in the deepening haze that now crept in from the tranquil sea.
Carl's voice calling to Cully to take in the Gray roused her to consciousness. She pushed back her chair, stood for an instant watching Carl romping with Patsy, and then walked slowly toward the stable.
By the time she reached the water-trough her old manner had returned. Her step became once more elastic and firm; her strong will asserted itself. She had work to do, and at once. In two hours the board would meet. She needed all her energies and resources. The lovers must wait; she could not decide any question for them now.
As she passed the stable window a man in a fur cap raised his head cautiously above the low fence and shrank back into the shadow.
Tom threw open the door and felt along the sill for the lantern and matches. They were not in their accustomed place. The man crouched, ran noiselessly toward the rear entrance, and crept in behind a stall. Tom laid her hand on the haunches of the horse and began rolling back his blanket. The man drew himself up slowly until his shoulders were on a level with the planking. Tom moved a step and turned her face. The man raised his arm, whirled a hammer high in the air, and brought it down upon her head.
When Cully led the Big Gray into his stall, a moment later, he stepped into a pool of blood.
XV. IN THE SHADOW OF DEATH
At the appointed hour the Board of Trustees met in the hall over the post-office. The usual loungers filled the room—members of the Union, and others who had counted on a piece of the highway pie when it was cut. Dempsey, Crimmins, and Quigg sat outside the rail, against the wall. They were waiting for McGaw, who had not been seen since the afternoon.
The president was in his accustomed place. The five gentlemen of leisure, the veterinary surgeon, and the other trustees occupied their several chairs. The roll had been called, and every man had answered to his name. The occasion being one of much importance, a full board was required.
As the minute-hand neared the hour of nine Dempsey became uneasy. He started every time a new-comer mounted the stairs. Where was McGaw? No one had seen him since he swallowed the tumblerful of whiskey and disappeared from O'Leary's, a few hours before.
The president rapped for order, and announced that the board was ready to sign the contract with Thomas Grogan for the hauling and delivery of the broken stone required for public highways.
There was no response.
"Is Mrs. Grogan here?" asked the president, looking over the room and waiting for a reply.
"Is any one here who represents her?" he repeated, after a pause, rising in his seat as he spoke.
No one answered. The only sound heard in the room was that of the heavy step of a man mounting the stairs.
"Is there any one here who can speak for Mrs. Thomas Grogan?" called the president again, in a louder voice.
"I can," said the man with the heavy tread, who proved to be the foreman at the brewery. "She won't live till mornin'; one of her horses kicked her and broke her skull, so McGaw told me."
"Broke her skull! My God! man, how do you know?" demanded the president, his voice trembling with excitement.
Every man's face was now turned toward the new-comer; a momentary thrill of horror ran through the assemblage.
"I heard it at the druggist's. One of her boys was over for medicine. Dr. Mason sewed up her head. He was drivin' by, on his way to Quarantine, when it happened."
"What Dr. Mason?" asked a trustee, eager for details.
"The man what used to be at Quarantine seven years ago. He's app'inted ag'in."
Dempsey caught up his hat and hurriedly left the room, followed by Quigg and Crimmins. McGaw, he said to himself, as he ran downstairs, must be blind drunk, not to come to the meeting, "——him! What if he gives everything away!" he added aloud.
"This news is awful," said the president. "I am very sorry for Mrs. Grogan and her children—she was a fine woman. It is a serious matter, too, for the village. The highway work ought to commence at once; the roads need it. We may now have to advertise again. That would delay everything for a month."
"Well, there's other bids," said another trustee,—one of the gentlemen of leisure,—ignoring the president's sympathy, and hopeful now of a possible slice on his own account. "What's the matter with McGaw's proposal? There's not much difference in the price. Perhaps he would come down to the Grogan figure. Is Mr. McGaw here, or anybody who can speak for him?"
Justice Rowan sat against the wall. The overzealous trustee had exactly expressed his own wishes and anxieties. He wanted McGaw's chances settled at once. If they failed, there was Rowan's own brother who might come in for the work, the justice sharing of course in the profits.
"In the absence of me client," said Rowan, looking about the room, and drawing in his breath with an important air, "I suppose I can ripresint him. I think, however, that if your honorable boord will go on with the other business before you, Mr. McGaw will be on hand in half an hour himself. In the meantime I will hunt him up."
"I move," said the Scotch surgeon, in a voice that showed how deeply he had been affected, "that the whole matter be laid on the table for a week, until we know for certain whether poor Mrs. Grogan is killed or not. I can hardly credit it. It is very seldom that a horse kicks a woman."
Nobody having seconded this motion, the chair did not put it. The fact was that every man was afraid to move. The majority of the trustees, who favored McGaw, were in the dark as to what effect Tom's death would have upon the bids. The law might require readvertising and hence a new competition, and perhaps somebody much worse for them than Tom might turn up and take the work—somebody living outside of the village. Then none of them would get a finger in the pie. Worse than all, the cutting of it might have to be referred to the corporation counsel, Judge Bowker. What his opinion would be was past finding out. He was beyond the reach of "pulls," and followed the law to the letter.
The minority—a minority of two, the president and the veterinary surgeon—began to distrust the spirit of McGaw's adherents. It looked to the president as if a "deal" were in the air.
The Scotchman, practical, sober-minded, sensible man as he was, had old-fashioned ideas of honesty and fair play. He had liked Tom from the first time he saw her,—he had looked after her stables professionally,—and he did not intend to see her, dead or alive, thrown out, without making a fight for her.
"I move," said he, "that the president appoint a committee of this board to jump into the nearest wagon, drive to Mrs. Grogan's, and find out whether she is still alive. If she's dead, that settles it; but if she's alive, I will protest against anything being done about this matter for ten days. It won't take twenty minutes to find out; meantime we can take up the unfinished business of the last meeting."
One of the gentlemen of leisure seconded this motion; it was carried unanimously, and this gentleman of leisure was himself appointed courier and left the room in a hurry. He had hardly reached the street when he was back again, followed closely by Dempsey, Quigg, Crimmins, Justice Rowan, and, last of all, fumbling with his fur cap, deathly pale, and entirely sober—Dan McGaw.
"There's no use of my going," said the courier trustee, taking his seat. "Grogan won't live an hour, if she ain't dead now. She had a sick horse that wanted looking after, and she went into the stable without a light, and he let drive, and broke her skull. She's got a gash the length of your hand—wasn't that it, Mr. McGaw?"
McGaw nodded his head.
"Yes; that's about it," he said. The voice seemed to come from his stomach, it was so hollow.
"Did you see her, Mr. McGaw?" asked the Scotchman in a positive tone.
"How c'u'd I be a-seein' her whin I been in New Yorruk 'mos' all day? D' ye think I'm runnin' roun' to ivery stable in the place? I wuz a-comin' 'cross lots whin I heared it. They says the horse had blin' staggers."
"How do you know, then?" asked the Scotchman suspiciously. "Who told you the horse kicked her?"
"Well, I dunno; I think it wuz some un"—
Dempsey looked at him and knit his brow. McGaw stopped.
"Don't you know enough of a horse to know he couldn't kick with blind staggers?" insisted the Scotchman.
McGaw did not answer.
"Does anybody know any of the facts connected with this dreadful accident to Mrs. Grogan?" asked the president. "Have you heard anything, Mr. Quigg?"
Mr. Quigg had heard absolutely nothing, and had not seen Mrs. Grogan for months. Mr. Crimmins was equally ignorant, and so were several other gentlemen. Here a voice came from the back of the room.
"I met Dr. Mason, sir, an hour ago, after he had attended Tom Grogan. He was on his way to Quarantine in his buggy. He said he left her insensible after dressin' the wound. He thought she might not live till mornin'."
"May I ask your name, sir?" asked the president in a courteous tone.
"Peter Lathers. I am yardmaster at the U. S. Lighthouse Depot."
The title, and the calm way in which Lathers spoke, convinced the president and the room. Everybody realized that Tom's life hung by a thread. The Scotchman still had a lingering doubt. He also wished to clear up the blind-staggers theory.
"Did he say how she was hurt?" asked the Scotchman.
"Yes. He said he was a-drivin' by when they picked her up, and he was dead sure that somebody had hid in the stable and knocked her on the head with a club."
McGaw steadied himself with his hand and grasped the seat of his chair. The sweat was rolling from his face. He seemed afraid to look up, lest some other eye might catch his own and read his thoughts. If he had only seen Lathers come in!
Lathers's announcement, coupled with the Scotchman's well-known knowledge of equine diseases discrediting the blind-staggers theory, produced a profound sensation. Heads were put together, and low whispers were heard. Dempsey, Quigg, and Crimmins did not move a muscle.
The Scotchman again broke the silence.
"There seems to be no question, gentlemen, that the poor woman is badly hurt; but she is still alive, and while she breathes we have no right to take this work from her. It's not decent to serve a woman so; and I think, too, it's illegal. I again move that the whole matter be laid upon the table."
This motion was not put, nobody seconding it.
Then Justice Rowan rose. The speech of the justice was seasoned with a brogue as delicate in flavor as the garlic in a Spanish salad.
"Mr. Prisident and Gintlemen of the Honorable Boord of Village Trustees," said the justice, throwing back his coat. The elaborate opening compelled attention at once. Such courtesies were too seldom heard in their deliberations, thought the members, as they lay back in their chairs to listen.
"No wan can be moore pained than meself that so estimable a woman as Mrs. Grogan—a woman who fills so honorably her every station in life—should at this moment be stricken down either by the hand of an assassin or the hoof of a horse. Such acts in a law-abidin' community like Rockville bring with them the deepest detistation and the profoundest sympathy. No wan, I am sure, is more touched by her misforchune than me worthy friend Mr. Daniel McGaw, who by this direct interposition of Providence is foorced into the position of being compelled to assert his rights befoore your honorable body, with full assurance that there is no tribunal in the land to which he could apply which would lend a more willing ear."
It was this sort of thing that made Rowan popular.
"But, gintlemen,"—here the justice curry-combed his front hair with his fingers—greasy, jet-black hair, worn long, as befitted his position,—"this is not a question of sympathy, but a question of law. Your honorable boord advertoised some time since for certain supplies needed for the growth and development of this most important of the villages of Staten Island. In this call it was most positively and clearly stated that the contract was to be awarded to the lowest risponsible bidder who gave the proper bonds. Two risponses were made to this call, wan by Mrs. Grogan, acting on behalf of her husband,—well known to be a hopeless cripple in wan of the many charitable institootions of our noble State,—and the other by our distinguished fellow-townsman, Mr. Daniel McGaw, whom I have the honor to ripresint. With that strict sinse of justice which has always characterized the decisions of this honorable boord, the contract was promptly awarded to Thomas Grogan, he being the lowest bidder; and my client, Daniel McGaw,—honest Daniel McGaw I should call him if his presence did not deter me,—stood wan side in obadience to the will of the people and the laws of the State, and accepted his defate with that calmness which always distinguishes the hard-workin' sons of toil, who are not only the bone and sinoo of our land, but its honor and proide. But, gintlemen,"—running his hand lightly through his hair, and then laying it in the bulging lapels of his now half-buttoned coat,—"there were other conditions accompanying these proposals; to wit, that within tin days from said openin' the successful bidder should appear befoore this honorable body, and then and there duly affix his signatoor to the aforesaid contracts, already prepared by the attorney of this boord, my honored associate, Judge Bowker. Now, gintlemen, I ask you to look at the clock, whose calm face, like a rising moon, presides over the deliberations of this boord, and note the passin' hour; and then I ask you to cast your eyes over this vast assemblage and see if Thomas Grogan, or any wan ripresinting him or her, or who in any way is connected with him or her, is within the confines of this noble hall, to execute the mandates of this distinguished boord. Can it be believed for an instant that if Mrs. Grogan, acting for her partly dismimbered husband, Mr. Thomas Grogan, had intinded to sign this contract, she would not have dispatched on the wings of the wind some Mercury, fleet of foot, to infarm this boord of her desire for postponement? I demand in the interests of justice that the contract be awarded to the lowest risponsible bidder who is ready to sign the contract with proper bonds, whether that bidder is Grogan, McGaw, Jones, Robinson, or Smith."
There was a burst of applause and great stamping of feet; the tide of sympathy had changed. Rowan had perhaps won a few more votes. This pleased him evidently more than his hope of cutting the contract pie. McGaw began to regain some of his color and lose some of his nervousness. Rowan's speech had quieted him.
The president gravely rapped for order. It was wonderful how much backbone and dignity and self-respect the justice's very flattering remarks had injected into the nine trustees—no, eight, for the Scotchman fully understood and despised Rowan's oratorical powers.
The Scotchman was on his feet in an instant.
"I have listened," he said, "to the talk that Justice Rowan has given us. It's very fine and tonguey, but it smothers up the facts. You can't rob this woman"—
"Question! question!" came from half a dozen throats.
"What's your pleasure, gentlemen?" asked the president, pounding with his gavel.
"I move," said the courier member, "that the contract be awarded to Mr. Daniel McGaw as the lowest bidder, provided he can sign the contract to-night with proper bonds."
Four members seconded it.
"Is Mr. McGaw's bondsman present?" asked the president, rising.
Justice Rowan rose, and bowed with the air of a foreign banker accepting a government loan.
"I have that honor, Mr. Prisident. I am willing to back Mr. McGaw to the extent of me humble possissions, which are ample, I trust, for the purposes of this contract"—looking around with an air of entire confidence.
"Gentlemen, are you ready for the question?" asked the president.
At this instant there was a slight commotion at the end of the hall. Half a dozen men nearest the door left their seats and crowded to the top of the staircase. Then came a voice outside: "Fall back; don't block up the door! Get back there!" The excitement was so great that the proceedings of the board were stopped.
The throng parted, The men near the table stood still. An ominous silence suddenly prevailed. Daniel McGaw twisted his head, turned ghastly white, and would have fallen from his chair but for Dempsey.
Advancing through the door with slow, measured tread, her long cloak reaching to her feet; erect, calm, fearless; her face like chalk; her lips compressed, stifling the agony of every step; her eyes deep sunken, black-rimmed, burning like coals; her brow bound with a blood-stained handkerchief that barely hid the bandages beneath, came Tom.
The deathly hush was unbroken. The men fell back with white, scared faces to let her pass. McGaw cowered in his chair. Dempsey's eyes glistened, a half-sigh of relief escaping him. Crimmins had not moved; the apparition stunned him.
On she came, her eyes fixed on the president, till she reached the table. Then she steadied herself for a moment, took a roll of papers from her dress, and sank into a chair.
No one spoke. The crowd pressed closer. Those outside the rail noiselessly mounted the benches and chairs, craning their necks. Every eye was fixed upon her.
Slowly and carefully she unrolled the contract, spreading it out before her, picked up a pen from the table, and without a word wrote her name. Then she rose firmly, and walked steadily to the door.
Just then a man entered within the rail and took her seat. It was her bondsman, Mr. Crane.
XVI. A FRIEND IN NEED
Two days after Tom had signed the highway contract, Babcock sat in his private office in New York, opening his mail. In the outside room were half a dozen employees—engineers and others—awaiting their instructions.
The fine spring weather had come and work had been started in every direction, including the second section of the sea-wall at the depot, where the divers were preparing the bottom for the layers of concrete. Tom's carts had hauled the stone.
Tucked into the pile of letters heaped before him, Babcock's quick eye caught the corner of a telegram. It read as follows:—
Mother hurt. Wants you immediately. Please come.
For an instant he sat motionless, gazing at the yellow slip. Then he sprang to his feet. Thrusting his unopened correspondence into his pocket, he gave a few hurried instructions to his men and started for the ferry. Once on the boat, he began pacing the deck. "Tom hurt!" he repeated to himself. "Tom hurt? How—when—what could have hurt her?" He had seen her at the sea-wall, only three days before, rosy-cheeked, magnificent in health and strength. What had happened? At the St. George landing he jumped into a hack, hurrying the cabman.
Jennie was watching for him at the garden gate. She said her mother was in the sitting-room, and Gran'pop was with her. As they walked up the path she recounted rapidly the events of the past two days.
Tom was on the lounge by the window, under the flowering plants, when Babcock entered. She was apparently asleep. Across her forehead, covering the temples, two narrow bandages bound up her wound. At Babcock's step she opened her eyes, her bruised, discolored face breaking into a smile. Then, noting his evident anxiety, she threw the shawl from her shoulders and sat up.
"No, don't look so. It's nothin'; I'll be all right in a day or two. I've been hurted before, but not so bad as this. I wouldn't have troubled ye, but Mr. Crane has gone West. It was kind and friendly o' ye to come; I knew ye would."
Babcock nodded to Pop, and sank into a chair. The shock of her appearance had completely unnerved him.
"Jennie has told me about it," he said in a tender, sympathetic tone. "Who was mean enough to serve you in this way, Tom?" He called her Tom now, as the others did.
"Well, I won't say now. It may have been the horse, but I hardly think it, for I saw a face. All I remember clear is a-layin' me hand on the mare's back. When I come to I was flat on the lounge. They had fixed me up, and Dr. Mason had gone off. Only the thick hood saved me. Carl and Cully searched the place, but nothin' could be found. Cully says he heard somebody a-runnin' on the other side of the fence, but ye can't tell. Nobody keeps their heads in times like that."
"Have you been in bed ever since?" Babcock asked.
"In bed! God rest ye! I was down to the board meetin' two hours after, wid Mr. Crane, and signed the contract. Jennie and all of 'em wouldn't have it, and cried and went on, but I braved 'em all. I knew I had to go if I died for it. Mr. Crane had his buggy, so I didn't have to walk. The stairs was the worst. Once inside, I was all right. I only had to sign, an' come out again; it didn't take a minute. Mr. Crane stayed and fixed the bonds wid the trustees, an' I come home wid Carl and Jennie." Then, turning to her father, she said, "Gran'pop, will ye and Jennie go into the kitchen for a while? I've some private business wid Mr. Babcock."
When they were gone her whole manner changed. She buried her face for a moment in the pillow, covering her cheek with her hands; then, turning to Babcock, she said:—
"Now, me friend, will ye lock the door?"
For some minutes she looked out of the window, through the curtains and nasturtiums, then, in a low, broken voice, she said:
"I'm in great trouble. Will ye help me?"
"Help you, Tom? You know I will, and with anything I've got. What is it!" he said earnestly, regaining his chair and drawing it closer.
"Has no one iver told ye about me Tom?" she asked, looking at him from under her eyebrows.
"No; except that he was hurt or—or—out of his mind, maybe, and you couldn't bring him home."
"An' ye have heared nothin' more?"
"No," said Babcock, wondering at her anxious manner.
"Ye know that since he went away I've done the work meself, standin' out as he would have done in the cold an' wet an' workin' for the children wid nobody to help me but these two hands."
Babcock nodded. He knew how true it was.
"Ye've wondered many a time, maybe, that I niver brought him home an' had him round wid me other poor cripple, Patsy—them two togither." Her voice fell almost to a whisper.
"Or ye thought, maybe, it was mean and cruel in me that I kep' him a burden on the State, when I was able to care for him meself. Well, ye'll think so no more."
Babcock began to see now why he had been sent for. His heart went out to her all the more.
"Tom, is your husband dead?" he asked, with a quiver in his voice.
She never took her eyes from his face. Few people were ever tender with her; they never seemed to think she needed it. She read this man's sincerity and sympathy in his eyes; then she answered slowly:—
"He is, Mr. Babcock."
"When did he die! Was it last night, Tom?"
"Listen to me fust, an' then I'll tell ye. Ye must know that when me Tom was hurted, seven years ago, we had a small place, an' only three horses, and them warn't paid for; an' we had the haulin' at the brewery, an' that was about all we did have. When Tom had been sick a month—it was the time the bucket fell an' broke his rib—the new contract at the brewery was let for the year, an' Schwartz give it to us, a-thinkin' that Tom'd be round ag'in, an' niver carin', so's his work was done, an' I doin' it, me bein' big an' strong, as I always was. Me Tom got worse an' worse, an' I saw him a-failin', an' one day Dr. Mason stopped an' said if I brought him to Bellevue Hospital, where he had just been appointed, he'd fix up his rib so he could breathe easier, and maybe he'd get well. Well, I hung on an' on, thinkin' he'd get better,—poor fellow, he didn't want to go,—but one night, about dark, I took the Big Gray an' put him to the cart, an' bedded it down wid straw; an' I wrapped me Tom up in two blankits an' carried him downstairs in me own arms, an' driv slow to the ferry."
She hesitated for a moment, leaned her bruised head on her hand, and then went on:—
"When I got to Bellevue, over by the river, it was near ten o'clock at night. Nobody stopped me or iver looked into me bundle of straw where me poor boy lay; an' I rung the bell, an' they came out, an' got him up into the ward, an' laid him on the bed. Dr. Mason was on night duty, an' come an' looked at him, an' said I must come over the next day; an' I kissed me poor Tom an' left him tucked in, promisin' to be back early in the mornin'. I had got only as far as the gate on the street whin one of the men came a-runnin' after me. I thought he had fainted, and ran back as fast as I could, but when I got me arms under him again—he was dead."
"And all this seven years ago, Tom?" said Babcock in astonishment, sinking back in his chair.
Tom bowed her head. The tears were trickling through her fingers and falling on the coarse shawl.
"Yis; seven years ago this June." She paused for a moment, as if the scene was passing before her in every detail, and then went on: "Whin I come home I niver said a word to anybody but Jennie. I've niver told Pop yit. Nobody else would have cared; we was strangers here. The next mornin' I took Jennie,—she was a child then,—an' we wint over to the city, an' I got what money I had, an' the doctors helped, an' we buried him; nobody but just us two, Jennie an' me, walkin' behint the wagon, his poor body in the box. Whin I come home I wanted to die, but I said nothin'. I was afraid Schwartz would take the work away if he knew it was only a woman who was a-doin' it wid no man round, an so I kep' on; an' whin the neighbors asked about him bein' in a 'sylum an' out of his head, an' a cripple an' all that, God forgive me, I was afraid to tell, and I kept still and let it go at that; an' whin they asked me how he was I'd say he was better, or more comfortable, or easier; an' so he was, thank God! bein' in heaven."
She roused herself wearily, and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. Babcock sat motionless.
"Since that I've kep' the promise to me Tom that I made on me knees beside his bed the night I lifted him in me arms to take him downstairs—that I 'd keep his name clean, and do by it as he would hev done himself, an' bring up the children, an' hold the roof over their heads. An' now they say I dar'n't be called by Tom's name, nor sign it neither, an' they're a-goin' to take me contract away for puttin' his name at the bottom of it, just as I've put it on ivery other bit o' paper I've touched ink to these seven years since he left me."
"Why, Tom, this is nonsense. Who says so?" said Babcock earnestly, glad of any change of feeling to break the current of her thoughts.
"Dan McGaw an' Rowan says so."
"What's McGaw got to do with it? He's out of the fight."
"Oh, ye don't know some men, Mr. Babcock. McGaw'll never stop fightin' while I live. Maybe I oughtn't tell ye,—I've niver told anybody,—but whin my Tom lay sick upstairs, McGaw come in one night, an' his own wife half dead with a blow he had given her, an' sat down in this very room,—it was our kitchen then,—an' he says,' If your man don't git well, ye'll be broke.' An' I says to him, 'Dan McGaw, if I live twelve months, Tom Grogan'll be a richer man than he is now.' I was a-sittin' right here when I said it, wid a rag carpet on this floor, an' hardly any furniture in the room. He said more things, an' tried to make love to me, and I let drive and threw him out of me kitchen. Then all me trouble wid him began; he's done everything to beat me since, and now maybe, after all, he'll down me. It all come up yisterday through McGaw meetin' Dr. Mason an' askin' him about me Tom; an' whin the doctor told him Tom was dead seven years, McGaw runs to Justice Rowan wid the story, an' now they say I can't sign a dead man's name. Judge Bowker has the papers, an' it's all to be settled to-morrow."
"But they can't take your contract away," said Babcock indignantly, "no matter what Rowan says."
"Oh, it's not that—it's not that. That's not what hurts me. I can git another contract. That's not what breaks me heart. But if they take me Tom's NAME from me, an' say I can't be Tom Grogan any more; it's like robbin' me of my life. When I work on the docks I allus brace myself an' say' I'm doing just what Tom did many a day for me.' When I sign his name to me checks an' papers,—the name I've loved an' that I've worked for, the name I've kep' clean for him—me Tom that loved me, an' never lied or was mean—me Tom that I promised, an'—an'"—
All the woman in her overcame her now. Sinking to her knees, she threw her arms and head on the lounge, and burst into tears.
Babcock rested his head on his hand, and looked on in silence. Here was something, it seemed to him, too sacred for him to touch even with his sympathy.
"Tom," he said, when she grew more quiet, his whole heart going out to her, "what do you want me to do?"
"I don't know that ye can do anything," she said in a quivering voice, lifting her head, her eyes still wet. "Perhaps nobody can. But I thought maybe ye'd go wid me to Judge Bowker in the mornin'. Rowan an' all of 'em 'll be there, an' I'm no match for these lawyers. Perhaps ye'd speak to the judge for me."
Babcock held out his hand.
"I knew ye would, an' I thank ye," she said, drying her eyes. "Now unlock the door, an' let 'em in. They worry so. Gran'pop hasn't slep' a night since I was hurted, an' Jennie goes round cryin' all the time, sayin' they 'll be a-killin' me next."
Then, rising to her feet, she called out in a cheery voice, as Babcock opened the door, "Come in, Jennie; come in Gran'pop. It's all over, child. Mr. Babcock's a-going wid me in the mornin'. Niver fear; we'll down 'em all yit."
XVII. A DANIEL COME TO JUDGMENT
When Judge Bowker entered his office adjoining the village bank, Justice Rowan had already arrived. So had McGaw, Dempsey, Crimmins, Quigg, the president of the board, and one or two of the trustees. The judge had sent for McGaw and the president, and they had notified the others.
McGaw sat next to Dempsey. His extreme nervousness of a few days ago—starting almost at the sound of his own footstep—had given place to a certain air of bravado, now that everybody in the village believed the horse had kicked Tom.
Babcock and Tom were by the window, she listless and weary, he alert and watchful for the slightest point in her favor. She had on her brown dress, washed clean of the blood-stains, and the silk hood, which better concealed the bruises. All her old fire and energy were gone. It was not from the shock of her wound,—her splendid constitution was fast healing that,—but from this deeper hurt, this last thrust of McGaw's which seemed to have broken her indomitable spirit.
Babcock, although he did not betray his misgivings, was greatly worried over the outcome of McGaw's latest scheme. He wished in his secret heart that Tom had signed her own name to the contract. He was afraid so punctilious a man as the judge might decide against her. He had never seen him; he only knew that no other judge in his district had so great a reputation for technical rulings.
When the judge entered—a small, gray-haired, keen-eyed man in a black suit, with gold spectacles, spotless linen, and clean-shaven face—Babcock's fears were confirmed. This man, he felt, would be legally exact, no matter who suffered by his decision.
Rowan opened the case, the judge listening attentively, looking over his glasses. Rowan recounted the details of the advertisement, the opening of the bids, the award of the contract, the signing of "Thomas Grogan" in the presence of the full board, and the discovery by his "honored client that no such man existed, had not existed for years, and did not now exist."
"Dead, your Honor"—throwing out his chest impressively, his voice swelling—"dead in his grave these siven years, this Mr. Thomas Grogan; and yet this woman has the bald and impudent effrontery to"—
"That will do, Mr. Rowan."
Police justices—justices like Rowan—did not count much with Judge Bowker, and then he never permitted any one to abuse a woman in his presence.
"The point you make is that Mrs. Grogan had no right to sign her name to a contract made out in the name of her dead husband."
"I do, your Honor," said Rowan, resuming his seat.
"Why did you sign it?" asked Judge Bowker, turning to Tom.
She looked at Babcock. He nodded assent, and then she answered:—
"I allus signed it so since he left me."
There was a pleading, tender pathos in her words that startled Babcock. He could hardly believe the voice to be Tom's.
The judge looked at her with a quick, penetrating glance, which broadened into an expression of kindly interest when he read her entire honesty in her face. Then he turned to the president of the board.
"When you awarded this contract, whom did you expect to do the work, Mrs. Grogan or her husband.'"
"Mrs. Grogan, of course. She has done her own work for years," answered the president.
The judge tapped the arm of his chair with his pencil. The taps could be heard all over the room. Most men kept quiet in Bowker's presence, even men like Rowan. For some moments his Honor bent over the desk and carefully examined the signed contract spread out before him; then he pushed it back, and glanced about the room.
"Is Mr. Crane, the bondsman, present?"
"Mr. Crane has gone West, sir," said Babcock, rising. "I represent Mrs. Grogan in this matter."
"Did Mr. Crane sign this bond knowing that Mrs. Grogan would haul the stone?"
"He did; and I can add that all her checks, receipts, and correspondence are signed in the same way, and have been for years. She is known everywhere as Tom Grogan. She has never had any other name—in her business."
"Who else objects to this award?" said the judge calmly.
Rowan sprang to his feet. The judge looked at him.
"Please sit down, Justice Rowan. I said 'who else.' I have heard you." He knew Rowan.
Dempsey jumped from his chair.
"I'm opposed to it, yer Honor, an' so is all me fri'nds here. This woman has been invited into the Union, and treats us as if we was dogs. She"—
"Are you a bidder for this work?" asked the judge.
"No, sir; but the Union has rights, and"—
"Please take your seat; only bidders can be heard now."
"But who's to stand up for the rights of the laborin' man if"—
"You can, if you choose; but not here. This is a question of evidence."
"Who's Bowker anyhow?" said Dempsey behind his hand to Quigg. "Ridin' 'round in his carriage and chokin' off free speech?" After some moments of thought the judge turned to the president of the board, and said in a measured, deliberate voice:—
"This signature, in my opinion, is a proper one. No fraud is charged, and under the testimony none was intended. The law gives Mrs. Grogan the right to use any title she chooses in conducting her business—her husband's name, or any other. The contract must stand as it is."
Here the judge arose and entered his private office, shutting the door behind him.
Tom had listened with eyes dilating, every nerve in her body at highest tension. Her contempt for Rowan in his abuse of her; her anger against Dempsey at his insults; her gratitude to Babcock as he stood up to defend her; her fears for the outcome, as she listened to the calm, judicial voice of the judge,—each producing a different sensation of heat and cold,—were all forgotten in the wild rush of joy that surged through her as the judge's words fell upon her ear. She shed no tears, as other women might have done. Every fibre of her being seemed to be turned to steel. She was herself again—she, Tom Grogan!—firm on her own feet, with her big arms ready to obey her, and her head as clear as a bell, master of herself, master of her rights, master of everything about her. And, above all, master of the dear name of her Tom that nothing could take from her now—not even the law!
With this tightening of her will power there quivered through her a sense of her own wrongs—the wrongs she had endured for years, the wrongs that had so nearly wrecked her life.
Then, forgetting the office, the still solemnity of the place—even Babcock—she walked straight up to McGaw, blocking his exit to the street door.
"Dan McGaw, there's a word I've got for ye before ye l'ave this place, an' I'm a-going to say it to ye now before ivery man in this room."
McGaw shrank back in alarm.
"You an' I have known each other since the time I nursed yer wife when yer boy Jack was born, an' helped her through when she was near dyin' from a kick ye give her. Ye began yer dirty work on me one night when me Tom lay sick, an' I threw ye out o' me kitchen; an' since that time ye've"—
"Here! I ain't a-goin' ter stand here an' listen ter yer. Git out o' me way, or I'll"—
Tom stepped closer, her eyes flashing, every word ringing clear.
"Stand still, an' hear what I've got to say to ye, or I'll go into that room and make a statement to the judge that'll put ye where ye won't move for years. There was enough light for me to see. Look at this"—drawing back her hood, and showing the bandaged scar.
McGaw seemed to shrivel up; the crowd stood still in amazement.
"I thought ye would. Now, I'll go on. Since that night in me kitchen ye 've tried to ruin me in ivery other way ye could. Ye've set these dead beats Crimmins and Quigg on to me to coax away me men; ye've stirred up the Union; ye burned me stable"—
"Ye lie! It's a tramp did it," snarled McGaw.
"Ye better keep still till I get through, Dan McGaw. I've got the can that helt the ker'sene, an' I know where yer boy Billy bought it, an' who set him up to it," she added, looking straight at Crimmins. "He might'a' been a dacent boy but for him." Crimmins turned pale and bit his lip.
The situation became intense. Even the judge, who had come out of his private room at the attack, listened eagerly.
"Ye've been a sneak an' a coward to serve a woman so who never harmed ye. Now I give ye fair warnin', an' I want two or three other men in this room to listen; if this don't stop, ye'll all be behint bars where ye belong.—I mean you, too, Mr. Dempsey. As for you, Dan McGaw, if it warn't for yer wife Kate, who's a dacent woman, ye'd go to-day. Now, one thing more, an' I'll let ye go. I've bought yer chattel mortgage of Mr. Crane that's past due, an' I can do wid it as I pl'ase. You'll send to me in the mornin' two of yer horses to take the places of those ye burned up, an' if they're not in my stable by siven o'clock I'll be round yer way 'bout nine with the sheriff."
Once outside in the sunlight, she became herself again. The outburst had cleared her soul like a thunder-clap. She felt as free as air. The secret that had weighed her down for years was off her mind. What she had whispered to her own heart she could now proclaim from the housetops. Even the law protected her.
Babcock walked beside her, silent and grave. She seemed to him like some Joan with flaming sword.
When they reached the road that led to her own house, her eyes fell upon Jennie and Carl. They had walked down behind them, and were waiting under the trees.
"There's one thing more ye can do for me, my friend," she said, turning to Babcock. "All the old things Tom an' I did togither I can do by meself; but it's new things like Carl an' Jennie that trouble me—the new things I can't ask him about. Do ye see them two yonder! Am I free to do for 'em as I would? No; ye needn't answer. I see it in yer face. Come here, child; I want ye. Give me yer hand."
For an instant she stood looking into their faces, her eyes brimming. Then she took Jennie's hand, slipped it into Carl's, and laying her big, strong palm over the two, said slowly:
"Now go home, both o' ye, to the house that'll shelter ye, pl'ase God, as long as ye live."
Before the highway-work was finished, McGaw was dead and Billy and Crimmins in Sing Sing. The label on the empty can, Quigg's volunteered testimony, and Judge Bowker's charge, convinced the jury. Quigg had quarreled with Crimmins and the committee, and took that way of getting even.
When Tom heard the news, she left her teams standing in the road and went straight to McGaw's house. His widow sat on a broken chair in an almost empty room.
"Don't cry, Katy," said Tom, bending over her. "I'm sorry for Billy. Seems to me, ye've had a lot o' trouble since Dan was drowned. It was not all Billy's fault. It was Crimmins that put him up to it. But ye've one thing left, and that's yer boy Jack. Let me take him—I'll make a man of him."
Jack is still with her. Tom says he is the best man in her gang.