Tom Grogan/Chapter 16
A FRIEND IN NEED
TWO 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. Jennie Grogan.
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.”