Tom Grogan/Chapter 15
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.