Tom Grogan/Chapter 3
SERGEANT DUFFY'S LITTLE GAME
Tbad weather so long expected finally arrived. An afternoon of soft, warm autumn skies, aglow with the radiance of the setting sun, and brilliant in violet and gold, had been followed by a cold, gray morning. Of a sudden a cloud the size of a hand had mounted clear of the horizon, and called together its fellows. An unseen herald in the east blew a blast, and winds and sea awoke.
By nine o'clock a gale was blowing. By ten Babcock's men were bracing the outer sheathing of the coffer-dam, strengthening the derrick-guys, tightening the anchor-lines, and clearing the working-platforms of sand, cement, and other damageable property. The course-masonry, fortunately, was above the water-line, but the coping was still unset and the rubble backing of much of the wall unfinished. Two weeks of constant work were necessary before that part of the structure contained in the first section of the contract would be entirely safe for the coming winter. Babcock doubled his gangs, and utilized every hour of low water to the utmost, even when the men stood waist-deep. It was his only hope for completing the first section that season. After that would come the cold, freezing the mortar, and ending everything.
Tom Grogan performed wonders. Not only did she work her teams far into the night, but during all this bad weather she stood throughout the day on the unprotected dock, a man's sou'wester covering her head, a rubber waterproof reaching to her feet. She directed every boat-load herself, and rushed the materials to the shovelers, who stood soaking wet in the driving rain.
Lathers avoided her; so did McGaw. Everybody else watched her in admiration. Even the commandant, a bluff, gray-bearded naval officer,—a hero of Hampton Roads and Memphis,—passed her on his morning inspection with a kindly look in his face and an aside to Babcock: “Hire some more like her. She is worth a dozen men.”
Not until the final cargo required for the completion of the wall had been dumped on the platforms did she relax her vigilance. Then she shook the water from her oilskins and started for home. During all these hours of constant strain there was no outbreak of bravado, no spell of ill humor. She made no boasts or promises. With a certain buoyant pluck she stood by the derricks day after day, firing volleys of criticism or encouragement, as best suited the exigencies of the moment, now she sprang forward to catch a sagging bucket, now tended a guy to relieve a man, or handled the teams herself when the line of carts was blocked or stalled.
Every hour she worked increased Babcock's confidence and admiration. He began to feel a certain pride in her, and to a certain extent to rely upon her. Such capacity, endurance, and loyalty were new in his experience. If she owed him anything for her delay on that first cargo, the debt had been amply paid. Yet he saw that no such sense of obligation had influenced her. To her this extra work had been a duty: he was behind-hand with the wall, and anxious; she would help him out. As to the weather, she reveled in it. The dash of the spray and the driving rain only added to her enjoyment. The clatter of rattling buckets and the rhythmic movement of the shovelers keeping time to her orders made a music as dear to her as that of the steady tramp of men and the sound of arms to a division commander.
Owing to the continued bad weather and the difficulty of shipping small quantities of fuel, the pumping-engines ran out of coal, and a complaint from Babcock's office brought the agent of the coal company to the sea-wall. In times like these Babcock rarely left his work. Once let the Old Man of the Sea, as he knew, get his finger in between the cracks of a coffer-dam, and he would smash the whole into wreckage.
“I was on my way to see Tom Grogan,” said the agent. “I heard you were here, so I stopped to tell you about the coal. There will be a load down in the morning. I am Mr. Crane, of Crane & Co., coal-dealers.”
“You know Mrs. Grogan, then?” asked Babcock, after the delay in the delivery of the coal had been explained. He had been waiting for some such opportunity to discover more about his stevedore. He never discussed personalities with his men.
“Well, I should say so—known her for years. Best woman on top of Staten Island. Does she work for you?”
“Yes, and has for some years; but I must confess I never knew Grogan was a woman until I found her on the dock a few weeks ago, handling a cargo. She works like a machine. How long has she been a widow?”
“Well, come to think of it, I don't know that she is a widow. There's some mystery about the old man, but I never knew what. But that don't count; she's good enough as she is, and a hustler, too.”
Crane was something of a hustler himself—one of those busy Americans who opens his daily life with an office-key and closes it with a letter for the late mail. He was a restless, wiry, black-eyed little man, never still for a moment, and perpetually in chase of another eluding dollar,—which half the time he caught.
Then, laying his hand on Babcock's arm: “And she's square as a brick, too. Sometimes when a chunker captain, waiting to unload, shoves a few tons aboard a sneak-boat at night, Tom will spot him every time. They try to fool her into indorsing their bills of lading in full, but it don't work for a cent.”
“You call her Tom Grogan?” Babcock asked, with a certain tone in his voice. He resented, somehow, Crane's familiarity.
“Certainly. Everybody calls her Tom Grogan. It's her husband's name. Call her anything else, and she don't answer. She seems to glory in it, and after you know her a while you don't want to call her anything else yourself. It comes kind of natural—like your calling a man 'colonel' or 'judge.”
Babcock could not but admit that Crane might be right. All the names which could apply to a woman who had been sweetheart, wife, and mother seemed out of place when he thought of this undaunted spirit who had defied Lathers, and with one blow of her fist sent the splinters of a fence flying about his head.
“We've got the year's contract for coal at the fort,” continued Crane. “The quarter-master-sergeant who inspects it—Sergeant Duffy—has a friend named McGaw who wants to do the unloading into the government bins. There's a low price on the coal, and there's no margin for anybody; and if Duffy should kick about the quality of the coal,—and you can't please these fellows if they want to be ugly,—Crane & Co. will be in a hole, and lose money on the contract. I hate to go back on Tom Grogan, but there's no help for it. The ten cents a ton I'd save if she hauls the coal instead of McGaw would be eaten up in Duffy's short weights and rejections. I sent Sergeant Duffy's letter to her, so she can tell how the land lies, and I'm going up now to her house to see her, on my way to the fort. I don't know what Duffy will get out of it; perhaps he gets a few dollars out of the hauling. The coal is shipped, by the way, and ought to be here any minute.”
“Wait; I'll go with you,” said Babcock, handing him an order for more coal. “She hasn't sent down the tally-sheet for my last scow.” There was not the slightest necessity, of course, for Babcock to go to Grogan's house for this document.
As they walked on, Crane talked of everything except what was uppermost in Babcock's mind. Babcock tried to lead the conversation back to Tom, but Crane's thoughts were on something else.
When they reached the top of the hill, the noble harbor lay spread out beneath them, from the purple line of the great cities to the silver sheen of the sea inside the narrows. The clearing wind had hauled to the northwest. The sky was heaped with soft clouds floating in the blue. At the base of the hill nestled the buildings and wharves of the Lighthouse Depot, with the unfinished sea-wall running out from the shore, fringed with platforms and bristling with swinging booms—the rings of white steam twirling from the exhaust-pipes.
On either side of the vast basin lay two grim, silent forts, crouched on grassy slopes like great beasts with claws concealed. Near by, big lazy steamers, sullen and dull, rested motionless at Quarantine, awaiting inspection; while beyond, white-winged graceful yachts curved tufts of foam from their bows. In the open, elevators rose high as church steeples; long lines of canal-boats stretched themselves out like huge water-snakes, with hissing tugs for heads; enormous floats groaned under whole trains of cars; big, burly lighters drifted slowly with widespread oil-stained sails; monster derricks towered aloft, derricks that pick up a hundred-ton gun as easily as an ant does a grain of sand—each floating craft made necessary by some special industry peculiar to the port of New York, and each unlike any other craft in the harbor of any other city of the world.
Grogan's house and stables lay just over the brow of this hill, in a little hollow. The house was a plain, square frame dwelling, with front and rear verandas, protected by the arching branches of a big sycamore-tree, and surrounded by a small garden filled with flaming dahlias and chrysanthemums. Everything about the place was scrupulously neat and clean.
The stables—there were two—stood on the lower end of the lot. They looked new, or were newly painted in a dark red, and appeared to have accommodations for a number of horses. The stable-yard lay below the house. In its open square were a pump and a horse-trough, at which two horses were drinking. One, the Big Gray, had his collar off, showing where the sweat had discolored the skin, the traces crossed loosely over his back. He was drinking eagerly, and had evidently just come in from work. About, under the sheds, were dirt-carts tilted forward on their shafts, and dust-begrimed harnesses hanging on wooden pegs.
A strapping young fellow in a red shirt came out of the stable door leading two other horses to the trough. Babcock looked about him in surprise at the extent of the establishment. He had supposed that his stevedore had a small outfit and needed all the work she could get. If, as McGaw had said, only boys did Grogan's work, they at least did it well.
Crane mounted the porch first and knocked. Babcock followed.
“No, Mr. Crane,” said a young girl, opening the door, “she's not at home. I'm expecting her every minute. Mother went to work early this morning. She'll be sorry to miss you, sir. She ought to be home now, for she's been up 'most all night at the fort. She's just sent Carl up for two more horses. Won't you come in and wait?”
“No; I'll keep on to the fort,” answered Crane. “I may meet her on the road.”
“May I come in?” Babcock asked, explaining his business in a few words.
“Oh, yes, sir. Mother won't be long now. You've not forgotten me, Mr. Babcock? I'm her daughter Jennie. I was to your office once. Gran'pop, this is the gentleman mother works for.”
An old man rose with some difficulty from an armchair, and bowed in a kindly, deferential way. He had been reading near the window. He was in his shirt-sleeves, his collar open at the throat. He seemed rather feeble. His legs shook as if he were weak from some recent illness. About the eyes was a certain kindliness that did not escape Babcock's quick glance; they were clear and honest, and looked straight into his—the kind he liked. The old man's most striking features were his silver-white hair, parted over his forehead and falling to his shoulders, and his thin, straight, transparent nose, indicating both ill health and a certain refinement and sensitiveness of nature. Had it not been for his dress, he might have passed for an English curate on half pay.
“Me name's Richard, sor—Richard Mullins,” said the old man. “I'm Mary's father. She won't be long gone now. She promised me she'd be home for dinner.” He placed a chair for Babcock, and remained standing. “I will wait until she returns,” said Babcock. He had come to discover something more definite about this woman who worked like a steam-engine, crooned over a cripple, and broke a plank with her fist, and he did not intend to leave until he knew. “Your daughter must have had great experience. I have never seen any one man handle work better,” he continued, extending his hand. Then, noticing that Mullins was still standing, “Don't let me take your seat.”
Mullins hesitated, glanced at Jennie, and, moving another chair from the window, drew it nearer, and settled slowly beside Babcock.
The room was as clean as bare arms and scrubbing-brushes could make it. Near the fireplace was a cast-iron stove, and opposite this stood a parlor organ, its top littered with photographs. A few chromos hung on the walls. There were also a big plush sofa and two haircloth rocking-chairs, of walnut, covered with cotton tidies. The carpet on the floor was new, and in the window, where the old man had been sitting, some pots of nasturtiums were blooming, their tendrils reaching up both sides of the sash. Opening from this room was the kitchen, resplendent in bright pans and a shining copper wash-boiler. The girl passed constantly in and out the open door, spreading the cloth and bringing dishes for the table.
Her girlish figure was clothed in a blue calico frock and white apron, the sleeves rolled up to the elbows, showing some faint traces of flour clinging to her wrists, as if she had been suddenly summoned from the bread-bowl. She was fresh and sweet, strong and healthy, with a certain grace of manner about her that pleased Babcock instantly. He saw now that she had her mother's eyes and color, but not her air of fearlessness and self-reliance—that kind of self-reliance which comes only of many nights of anxiety and many days of success. He noticed, too, that when she spoke to the old man her voice was tempered with a peculiar tenderness, as if his infirmities were more to be pitied than complained of. This pleased him most of all.
“You live with your daughter, Mrs. Grogan?” Babcock asked in a friendly way, turning to the old man.“Yis, sor. Whin Tom got sick, she sint fer me to come over an' hilp her. I feeds the horses whin Oi'm able, an' looks after the garden, but Oi'm not much good.”
“Is Mr. Thomas Grogan living?” asked Babcock cautiously, and with a certain tone of respect, hoping to get closer to the facts, and yet not to seem intrusive.
“Oh, yis, sor: an' moight be dead fer all the good he does. He's in New Yorruk some'er's, on a farm”—lowering his voice to a whisper and looking anxiously toward Jennie—“belongin' to the State, I think, sor. He's hurted pretty bad, an' p'haps he's a leetle off—I dunno. Mary has niver tould me.”
Before Babcock could pursue the inquiry further there was a firm tread on the porch steps, and the old man rose from the chair, his face brightening.
“Here she is, Gran'pop,” said Jennie, laying down her dish and springing to the door.
“Hold tight, darlint,” came a voice from the outside, and the next instant Tom Grogan strode in, her face aglow with laughter, her hood awry, her eyes beaming. Patsy was perched on her shoulder, his little crutch fast in one hand, the other tightly wound about her neck. “Let go, darlint; ye're a-chokin' the wind out of me.”
“Oh, it's ye a-waitin', Mr. Babcock—me man Carl thought ye'd gone. Mr. Crane I met outside told me you'd been here. Jennie'll get the tally-sheet of the last load for ye. I've been to the fort since daylight, and pretty much all night, to tell ye God's truth. Oh, Gran'pop, but I smashed 'em!” she exclaimed as she gently removed Patsy's arm and laid him in the old man's lap. She had picked the little cripple up at the garden gate, where he always waited for her. “That's the last job that sneakin' Duffy and Dan McGaw'll ever put up on me. Oh, but ye should'a' minded the face on him, Gran'pop!”—untying her hood and breaking into a laugh so contagious in its mirth that even Babcock joined in without knowing what it was all about.
As she spoke, Tom stood facing her father, hood and ulster off, the light of the windows silhouetting the splendid lines of her well-rounded figure, with its deep chest, firm bust, broad back, and full throat, her arms swinging loose and free.
“Ye see,” she said, turning to Babcock, “that man Duffy tried to do me,—he's the sergeant at the fort—and Dan McGaw—ye know him—he's the divil that wanted to work for ye. Ye know I always had the hauling of the coal at the fort, an' I want to hold on to it, for it comes every year. I've been a-watchin' for this coal for a month. Every October there's a new contractor, and this time it was me friend Mr. Crane I've worked for before. So I sees Duffy about it the other day, an' he says, 'Well, I think ye better talk to the quartermaster, who's away, but who'll be home next week.' An' that night when I got home, there lay a letter from Mr. Crane, wid another letter inside it Sergeant Duffy had sent to Mr. Crane, sayin' he'd recommend Dan McGaw to do the stevedorin'—the sneakin' villain—an' sayin' that he—Duffy—was a-goin' to inspect the coal himself, an' if his friend Dan McGaw hauled it, the quality would be all right. Think of that! I tell ye, Mr. Babcock, they're divils. Then Mr. Crane put down at the bottom of his letter to me that he was sorry not to give me the job, but that he must give it to Duffy's friend McGaw, or Duffy might reject the coal. Wait till I wash me hands and I'll tell ye how I fixed him,” she added suddenly, as with a glance at her fingers she disappeared into the kitchen, reappearing a moment later with her bare arms as fresh and as rosy as her cheeks, from their friction with a clean crash towel.“Well!” she continued, “I jumps into me bonnet yisterday, and over I goes to the fort; an' I up an' says to Duffy, 'I can't wait for the quartermaster. When's that coal a-comin'?' An' he says, 'In a couple of weeks.' An' I turned onto him and says: 'Ye're a pretty loafer to take the bread out of Tom Grogan's children's mouths! An' ye want Dan McGaw to do the haulin', do ye? An' the quality of the coal'll be all right if he gits it! An' there's sure to be twenty-five dollars for ye, won't there? If I hear a word more out of ye I'll see Colonel Howard sure, an' hand him this letter.' An' Duffy turned white as a load of lime, and says, 'Don't do it, for God's sake! It'll cost me m' place.' While I was a-talkin' I see a chunker-boat with the very coal on it round into the dock with a tug; an' I ran to the string-piece and catched the line, and has her fast to a spile before the tug lost head-way. Then I started for home on the run, to get me derricks and stuff. I got home, hooked up by twelve o'clock last night, an' before daylight I had me rig up an' the fall set and the buckets over her hatches. At six o'clock this mornin' I took the teams and was a-runnin' the coal out of the chunker, when down comes Mr.—Daniel—McGaw with a gang and his big derrick on a cart.” She repeated this in a mocking tone, swinging her big shoulders exactly as her rival would have done.
“'That's me rig,' I says to him, p'intin' up to the gaff, 'an' me coal, an' I'll throw the fust man overboard who lays hands on it!' An' then the sergeant come out and took McGaw one side an' said somethin' to him, with his back to me; an' when McGaw turned he was white too, an' without sayin' a word he turned the team and druv off. An' just now I met Mr. Crane walkin' down, lookin' like he had lost a horse. 'Tom Grogan,' he says, 'I hate to disappoint ye, an' wouldn't, for ye've always done me work well; but I'm stuck on the coal contract, an' the sergeant can put me in a hole if ye do the haulin'.' An' I says, 'Brace up, Mr. Crane, there's a hole, but ye ain't in it, an' the sergeant is. I'll unload every pound of that coal, if I do it for nothin', and if that sneak in striped trousers bothers me or you, I'll pull him apart an' stamp on him!'”
Through all her talk there was a triumphant good humor, a joyousness, a glow and breeziness, which completely fascinated Babcock. Although she had been up half the night, she was as sweet and fresh and rosy as a child. Her vitality, her strength, her indomitable energy, impressed him as no woman's had ever done before.
When she had finished her story she suddenly caught Patsy out of her father's arms and dropped with him into a chair, all the mother-hunger in her still unsatisfied. She smothered him with kisses and hugged him to her breast, holding his pinched face against her ruddy cheek. Then she smoothed his forehead with her well-shaped hand, and rocked him back and forth. By and by she told him of the stone that the Big Gray had got in his hoof down at the fort that morning, and how lame he had been, and how Cully had taken it out with—a—great—big—spike!—dwelling on the last words as if they belonged to some wonderful fairy-tale. The little fellow sat up in her lap and laughed as he patted her breast joyously with his thin hand. “Cully could do it,” he shouted in high glee; “Cully can do anything.” Babcock, apparently, made no more difference to her than if he had been an extra chair.
As she moved about her rooms afterward, calling to her men from the open door, consulting with Jennie, her arms about her neck, or stopping at intervals to croon over her child, she seemed to him to lose all identity with the woman on the dock. The spirit that enveloped her belonged rather to that of some royal dame of heroic times, than to that of a working woman of to-day. The room somehow became her castle, the rough stablemen her knights.
On his return to his work she walked back with him part of the way. Babcock, still bewildered, and still consumed with curiosity to learn something of her past, led the talk to her life along the docks, expressing his great surprise at discovering her so capable and willing to do a man's work, asking who had taught her, and whether her husband in his time had been equally efficient and strong.
Instantly she grew reticent. She did not even answer his question. He waited a moment, and, realizing his mistake, turned the conversation in another direction.
“And how about those rough fellows around the wharves—those who don't know you—are they never coarse and brutal to you?”
“Not when I look 'em in the face,” she answered slowly and deliberately. “No man ever opens his head, nor dar'sn't. When they see me a-comin' they stops talkin', if it's what they wouldn't want their daughters to hear; an' there ain't no dirty back talk, neither. An' I make me own men civil, too, with a dacint tongue in their heads. I had a young strip of a lad once who would be a-swearin' round the stables. I told him to mend his manners or I'd wash his mouth out, an' that I wouldn't have nobody hit me horses on the head. He kep' along, an' I see it was a bad example for the other drivers (this was only a year ago, an' I had three of 'em); so when he hit the Big Gray ag'in, I hauled off and give him a crack that laid him out. I was scared solid for two hours, though they never knew it.”
Then, with an almost piteous look in her face, and with a sudden burst of confidence, born, doubtless, of a dawning faith in the man's evident sincerity and esteem, she said in a faltering tone:—
“God help me! what can I do? I've no man to stand by me, an' somebody's got to be boss.”