Tom Grogan/Chapter 14
IT was “blossom-week,” and every garden and hedge flaunted its bloom in the soft air. All about was the perfume of flowers, the odor of fresh grass, and that peculiar earthy smell of new-made garden beds but lately sprinkled. Behind the hill overlooking the harbor the sun was just sinking into the sea. Some sentinel cedars guarding its crest stood out in clear relief against the golden light. About their tops, in wide circles, swooped a flock of crows.
Gran'pop and Tom sat on the front porch, their chairs touching, his hand on hers. She had been telling him of Quigg's visit that morning. She had changed her dress for a new one. The dress was of brown cloth, and had been made in the village—tight where it should be loose, and loose where it should be tight. She had put it on, she told Pop, to make a creditable appearance before the board that night.
Jennie was flitting in and out between the sitting-room and the garden, her hands full of blossoms, filling the china jars on the mantel: none of them contained Quigg's contribution. Patsy was flat on his back on the small patch of green surrounding the porch, playing circus-elephant with Stumpy, who stood over him with leveled head.
Up the hill, but a few rods away, Cully was grazing the Big Gray—the old horse munching tufts of fresh, sweet grass sprinkled with dandelions. Cully walked beside him. Now and then he lifted one of his legs, examining the hoof critically for possible tender places.
There was nothing the matter with the Gray; the old horse was still sound: but it satisfied Cully to be assured, and it satisfied, too, a certain yearning tenderness in his heart toward his old chum. Once in a while he would pat the Gray's neck, smoothing his ragged, half worn mane, addressing him all the while in words of endearment expressed in a slang positively profane and utterly without meaning except to these two.
Suddenly Jennie's cheek flushed as she came out on the porch. Carl was coming up the path. The young Swede was bareheaded, the short blond curls glistening in the light; his throat was bare too, so that one could see the big muscles in his neck. Jennie always liked him with his throat bare; it reminded her of a hero she had once seen in a play, who stormed a fort and rescued all the starving women.
“Da brown horse seek; batta come to stabble an' see him,” Carl said, going direct to the porch, where he stood in front of Tom, resting one hand on his hip, his eyes never wandering from her face. He knew where Jennie was, but he never looked.
“What's the matter with him?” asked Tom, her thoughts far away at the moment.
“I don' know; he no eat da oats en da box.”
“Will he drink?” said Tom, awakening to the importance of the information.
“Yas; 'mos' two buckets.”
“It's fever he's got,” she said, turning to Pop. “I thought that yisterday noon when I sees him a-workin'. All right, Carl; I'll be down before I go to the board meetin'. An' see here, Carl; ye'd better git ready to go wid me. I'll start in a couple o' hours. Will it suit ye, Gran'pop, if Carl goes with me?”—patting her father's shoulder. “If ye keep on a-worritin' I'll hev to hire a cop to follow me round.”
Carl lingered for a moment on the steps. Perhaps Tom had some further orders; perhaps, too, Jennie would come out again. Involuntarily his eye wandered toward the open door, and then he turned to go. Jennie's heart sprang up in her throat. She had seen from behind the curtains the shade of disappointment that crossed her lover's face. She could suffer herself, but she could not see Carl unhappy. In an instant she was beside her mother. Anything to keep Carl—she did not care what.
“Oh, Carl, will you bring the ladder so I can reach the long branches?” she said, her quick wit helping her with a subterfuge.
Carl turned and glanced at Tom. He felt the look in her face and could read her thoughts.
If Tom had heard Jennie she never moved. This affair must end in some way, she said to herself. Why had she not sent him away long before? How could she do it now when he had risked his life to save Patsy?
Then she answered firmly, still without turning her head, “No, Jennie; there won't be time. Carl must get ready to”—
Pop laid his hand on hers.
“There's plinty o' toime, Mary. Ye'll git the ladder behint the kitchen door, Carl. I hed it ther' mesilf this mornin'.”
Carl found the ladder, steadied it against the tree, and guided Jennie's little feet till they reached the topmost round, holding on to her skirts so that she should not fall. Above their heads the branches twined and interlaced, shedding their sweetest blossoms over their happy upturned faces. The old man's eyes lightened as he watched them for some moments; then, turning to Tom, his voice full of tenderness, he said:—
“Carl's a foine lad, Mary; ye'll do no better for Jinnie.”
Tom did not answer; her eyes were on the cedars where the crows were flying, black silhouettes against the yellow sky.“Did I shtop ye an' break yer heart whin ye wint off wid yer own Tom? What wuz he but an honest lad thet loved ye, an' he wid not a pinny in his pocket but the fare that brought ye both to the new counthry.”
Tom's eyes filled. She could not see the cedars now. All the hill was swimming in light.
“Oi hev watched Carl sence he fust come, Mary. It's a good mither some'er's as has lost a foine b'y. W'u'dn't ye be lonely yersilf ef ye'd come here wid nobody to touch yer hand?”
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.