Tom Grogan/Chapter 13


McGAW had watched the fire from his upper window with mingled joy and fear—joy that Tom's property was on fire, and fear that it would be put out before she would be ruined. He had been waiting all the evening for Crimmins, who had failed to arrive. Billy had not been at home since supper, so he could get no details as to the amount of the damage from that source. In this emergency he sent next morning for Quigg to make a reconnaissance in the vicinity of the enemy's camp, ascertain how badly Tom had been crippled, and learn whether her loss would prevent her signing the contract the following night. Mr. Quigg accepted the mission, the more willingly because he wanted to settle certain affairs of his own. Jennie had avoided him lately,—why he could not tell,—and he determined, before communicating to his employer the results of his inquiries about Tom, to know exactly what his own chances were with the girl. He could slip over to the house while Tom was in the city, and leave before she returned.

On his way, the next day, he robbed a garden fence of a mass of lilacs, breaking off the leaves as he walked. When he reached the door of the big stable he stopped for a moment, glanced cautiously in to see if he could find any preparations for the new work, and then, making a mental note of the surroundings, followed the path to the porch.

Pop opened the door. He knew Quigg only by sight—an unpleasant sight, he thought, as he looked into his hesitating, wavering eyes.

“It's a bad fire ye had, Mr. Mullins,” said Quigg, seating himself in the rocker, the blossoms half strangled in his grasp.

“Yis, purty bad, but small loss, thank God,” said Pop quietly.

“That lets her out of the contract, don't it?” said Quigg. “She'll be short of horses now.”

Pop made no answer. He did not intend to give Mr. Quigg any information that might comfort him.

“Were ye insured?” asked Quigg, in a cautious tone, his eyes on the lilacs.

“Oh, yis, ivery pinny on what was burned, so Mary tells me.”

Quigg caught his breath; the rumor in the village was the other way. Why didn't Crimmins make a clean sweep of it and burn 'em all at once, he said to himself.

“I brought some flowers over for Miss Jennie,” said Quigg, regaining his composure. “Is she in?”

“Yis; I'll call her.” Gentle and apparently harmless as Gran'pop was, men like Quigg somehow never looked him steadily in the eye.

“I was tellin' Mr. Mullins I brought ye over some flowers,” said Quigg, turning to Jennie as she entered, and handing her the bunch without leaving his seat, as if it had been a pair of shoes.

“You're very kind, Mr. Quigg,” said the girl, laying them on the table, and still standing.

“I hear'd your brother Patsy was near smothered till Dutchy got him out. Was ye there?”

Jennie bit her lip and her heart quickened. Carl's sobriquet in the village, coming from such lips, sent the hot blood to her cheeks.

“Yes, Mr. Nilsson saved his life,” she answered slowly, with girlish dignity, a backward rush filling her heart as she remembered Carl staggering out of the burning stable, Patsy held close to his breast.

“The fellers in Rockville say ye think it was set afire. I see Justice Rowan turned Billy McGaw loose. Do ye suspect anybody else? Some says a tramp crawled in and upset his pipe.”

This lie was coined on the spot and issued immediately to see if it would pass.

“Mother says she knows who did it, and it'll all come out in time. Cully found the can this morning,” said Jennie, leaning against the table.

Quigg's jaw fell and his brow knit as Jennie spoke. That was just like the fool, he said to himself. Why didn't he get the stuff in a bottle and then break it?

But the subject was too dangerous to linger over, so he began talking of the dance down at the Town Hall, and the meeting last Sunday after church. He asked her if she would go with him to the “sociable” they were going to have at No. 4 Truck-house; and when she said she couldn't,—that her mother didn't want her to go out, etc.,—Quigg moved his chair closer, with the remark that the old woman was always putting her oar in and spoiling things; the way she was going on with the Union would ruin her; she'd better join in with the boys, and be friendly; they'd “down her yet if she didn't.”

“I hope nothing will happen to mother, Mr. Quigg,” said Jennie, in an anxious tone, as she sank into a chair.

Quigg misunderstood the movement, and moved his own closer.

“There won't nothin' happen any more, Jennie, if you'll do as I say.”

It was the first time he had ever called her by her name. She could not understand how he dared. She wished Carl would come in.

“Will you do it?” asked Quigg eagerly, his cunning face and mean eyes turned toward her.

Jennie never raised her head. Her cheeks were burning. Quigg went on,—

“I've been keepin' company with ye, Jennie, all winter, and the fellers is guyin' me about it. You know I'm solid with the Union and can help yer mother, and if ye'll let me speak to Father McCluskey next Sunday”—

The girl sprang from her chair.

“I won't have you talk that way to me, Dennis Quigg! I never said a word to you, and you know it.” Her mother's spirit was now flashing in her eyes. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself to come here—and”—

Then she broke down.

Another woman would have managed it differently, perhaps,—by a laugh, a smile of contempt, or a frigid refusal. This mere child, stung to the quick by Quigg's insult, had only her tears in defense. The Walking Delegate turned his head and looked out of the window. Then he caught up his hat and without a word to the sobbing girl hastily left the room.

Tom was just entering the lower gate. Quigg saw her and tried to dodge behind the tool-house, but it was too late, so he faced her. Tom's keen eye caught the sly movement and the quickly altered expression. Some new trickery was in the air, she knew; she detected it in every line of Quigg's face. What was McGaw up to now? she asked herself. Was he after Carl and the men, or getting ready to burn the other stable?

“Good-morning, Mr. Quigg. Ain't ye lost?” she asked coldly.

“Oh no,” said Quigg, with a forced laugh. “I come over to see if I could help about the fire.”

It was the first thing that came into his head; he had hoped to pass with only a nod of greeting.

“Did ye?” replied Tom thoughtfully. She saw he had lied, but she led him on. “What kind of help did ye think of givin'? The insurance company will pay the money, the two horses is buried, an' we begin diggin' post-holes for a new stable in the mornin'. Perhaps ye were thinkin' of lendin' a hand yerself. If ye did, I can put ye alongside of Carl; one shovel might do for both of ye.”

Quigg colored and laughed uneasily. Somebody had told her, then, how Carl had threatened him with uplifted shovel when he tried to coax the Swede away.

“No, I'm not diggin' these days; but I've got a pull wid the insurance adjuster, and might git an extra allowance for yer.” This was cut from whole cloth. He had never known an adjuster in his life.

“What's that?” asked Tom, still looking square at him, Quigg squirming under her glance like a worm on a pin.

“Well, the company can't tell how much feed was in the bins, and tools, and sech like,” he said, with another laugh.

A laugh is always a safe parry when a pair of clear gray search-light eyes are cutting into one like a rapier.

“An' yer idea is for me to git paid for stuff that wasn't burned up, is it?”

“Well, that's as how the adjuster says. Sometimes he sees it an' sometimes he don't—that's where the pull comes in.”

Tom put her arms akimbo, her favorite attitude when her anger began to rise.

“Oh I see! The pull is in bribin' the adjuster, as ye call him, so he can cheat the company.”

Quigg shrugged his shoulders; that part of the transaction was a mere trifle. What were companies made for but to be cheated?

Tom stood for a minute looking him all over.

“Dennis Quigg,” she said slowly, weighing each word, her eyes riveted on his face, “ye're a very sharp young man; ye're so very sharp that I wonder ye've gone so long without cuttin' yerself, But one thing I tell ye, an' that is, if ye keep on the way ye're a-goin' ye'll land where you belong, and that's up the river in a potato-bug suit of clothes. Turn yer head this way, Quigg. Did ye niver in yer whole life think there was somethin' worth the havin' in bein' honest an' clean an' square, an' holdin' yer head up like a man, instead of skulkin' round like a thief? What ye're up to this mornin' I don't know yet, but I want to tell ye it 's the wrong time o' day for ye to make calls, and the night's not much better, unless ye're particularly invited.”

Quigg smothered a curse and turned on his heel toward the village. When he reached O'Leary's, Dempsey of the Executive Committee met him at the door. He and McGaw had spent the whole morning in devising plans to keep Tom out of the board-room.

Quigg's report was not reassuring. She would be paid her insurance money, he said, and would certainly be at the meeting that night.

The three adjourned to the room over the bar. McGaw began pacing the floor, his long arms hooked behind his back. He had passed a sleepless night, and every hour now added to his anxiety. His face was a dull gray yellow, and his eyes were sunken. Now and then he would tug at his collar nervously. As he walked he clutched his fingers, burying the nails in the palms, the red hair on his wrists bristling like spiders' legs. Dempsey sat at the table watching him calmly out of the corner of his eye.

After a pause Quigg leaned over, his lips close to Dempsey's ear. Then he drew a plan on the back of an old wine-list. It marked the position of the door in Tom's stable, and that of a path which ran across lots and was concealed from her house by a low fence. Dempsey studied it a moment, nodding at Quigg's whispered explanations, and passed it to McGaw, repeating Quigg's words. McGaw stopped and bent his head. A dull gleam flashed out of his smouldering eyes. The lines of his face hardened and his jaw tightened. For some minutes he stood irresolute, gazing vacantly over the budding trees through the window. Then he turned sharply, swallowed a brimming glass of raw whiskey, and left the room.

When the sound of his footsteps had died away, Dempsey looked at Quigg meaningly and gave a low laugh.