Tom Grogan/Chapter 4
A WALKING DELEGATE LEARNS A NEW STEP
McGAW'S failure to undermine Tom's business with Babcock, and his complete discomfiture over Crane's coal contract at the fort, only intensified his hatred of the woman.
Finding that he could make no headway against her alone, he called upon the Union to assist him, claiming that she was employing non-union labor, and had thus been able to cut down the discharging rates to starvation prices.
A meeting was accordingly called by the executive committee of the Knights, and a resolution passed condemning certain persons in the village of Rockville as traitors to the cause of the workingman. Only one copy of this edict was issued and mailed. This found its way into Tom Grogan's letter-box. Five minutes after she had broken the seal, her men discovered the document pasted upside down on her stable door.
McGaw heard of her action that night, and started another line of attack. It was managed so skillfully that that which until then had been only a general dissatisfaction on the part of the members of the Union and their sympathizers over Tom's business methods now developed into an avowed determination to crush her. They discussed several plans by which she could be compelled either to restore rates for unloading, or be forced out of the business altogether. As one result of these deliberations a committee called upon the priest, Father McCluskey, and informed him of the delicate position in which the Union had been placed by her having hidden her husband away, thus forcing them to fight the woman herself. She was making trouble, they urged, with her low wages and her unloading rates. “Perhaps his Riverence c'u'd straighten her out.”
Father McCluskey's interview with Tom took place in the priest's room one morning after early mass. It had gone abroad, somehow, that his Reverence intended to discipline the “high-flyer,” and a considerable number of the “tenement-house gang,” as Tom called them, had loitered behind to watch the effect of the good father's remonstrances.
What Tom told the priest no one ever knew: such conferences are part of the regime of the church, and go no farther. It was noticed, however, as she came down the aisle, that her eyes were red, as if from weeping, and that she never raised them from the floor as she passed between her enemies on her way to the church door. Once outside, she put her arm around Jennie, who was waiting, and the two strolled slowly across the lots to her house.
When the priest came out, his own eyes were tinged with moisture. He called Dennis Quigg, McGaw's right-hand man, and in a voice loud enough to be heard by those nearest him expressed his indignation that any dissension should have arisen among his people over a woman's work, and said that he would hear no more of this unchristian and unmanly interference with one whose only support came from the labor of her hands.
McGaw and his friends were not discouraged. They were only determined upon some more definite stroke. It was therefore ordered that a committee be appointed to waylay her men going to work, and inform them of their duty to their fellow-laborers.
Accordingly, this same Quigg—smooth-shaven, smirking, and hollow-eyed, with a diamond pin, half a yard of watch-chain, and a fancy shirt—ex-village clerk with his accounts short, ex-deputy sheriff with his accounts of cruelty and blackmail long, and at present walking delegate of the Union—was appointed a committee of one for that duty.
Quigg began by begging a ride in one of Tom's return carts, and taking this opportunity to lay before the driver the enormity of working for Grogan for thirty dollars a month and board, when there were a number of his brethren out of work and starving who would not work for less than two dollars a day if it were offered them. It was plainly the driver's duty, Quigg urged, to give up his job until Tom Grogan could be compelled to hire him back at advanced wages. During this enforced idleness the Union would pay the driver fifty cents a day. Here Quigg pounded his chest, clenched his fists, and said solemnly, “If capital once downs the lab'rin' man, we'll all be slaves.”
The driver was Carl Nilsson, a Swede, a big, blue-eyed, light-haired young fellow of twenty-two, a sailor from boyhood, who three years before, on a public highway, had been picked up penniless and hungry by Tom Grogan, after the keeper of a sailors' boarding-house had robbed him of his year's savings. The change from cracking ice from a ship's deck with a marlinespike, to currying and feeding something alive and warm and comfortable, was so delightful to the Swede that he had given up the sea for a while. He had felt that he could ship again at anytime, the water was so near. As the months went by, however, he, too, gradually fell under the spell of Tom's influence. She reminded him of the great Norse women he had read about in his boyhood. Besides all this, he was loyal and true to the woman who had befriended him, and who had so far appreciated his devotion to her interests as to promote him from hostler and driver to foreman of the stables.Nilsson knew Quigg by sight, for he had seen him walking home with Jennie from church. His knowledge of English was slight, but it was enough to enable him to comprehend Quigg's purpose as he talked beside him on the cart. After some questions about how long the enforced idleness would continue, he asked suddenly:—
“Who da horse clean when I go 'way?”
“D—n her! let her clean it herself,” Quigg answered angrily.
This ended the question for Nilsson, and it very nearly ended the delegate. Jumping from the cart, Carl picked up the shovel and sprang toward Quigg, who dodged out of his way, and then took to his heels.
When Nilsson, still white with anger, reached the dock, he related the incident to Cully, who, on his return home, retailed it to Jennie with such variety of gesture and intonation that that young lady blushed scarlet, but whether from sympathy for Quigg or admiration for Nilsson, Cully was unable to decide.
Quigg's failure to coax away one of Tom's men ended active operations against Tom, so far as the Union was concerned. It continued to listen to McGaw's protests, but, with an eye open for its own interests, replied that if Grogan's men would not be enticed away it could at present take no further action. His trouble with Tom was an individual matter, and a little patience on McGaw's part was advised. The season's work was over, and nothing of importance could be done until the opening of the spring business. If Tom's men struck now, she would be glad to get rid of them. It would, therefore, be wiser to wait until she could not do without them, when they might all be forced out in a body. In the interim McGaw should direct his efforts to harassing his enemy. Perhaps a word with Slattery, the blacksmith, might induce that worthy brother Knight to refuse to do her shoeing some morning when she was stalled for want of a horse; or he might let a nail slip in a tender hoof. No one could tell what might happen in the coming months. At the moment the funds of the Union were too low for aggressive measures. Were McGaw, however, to make a contribution of two hundred dollars to the bank account in order to meet possible emergencies, something might be done. All this was duly inscribed in the books of the committee,—that is, the last part of it,—and upon McGaw's promising to do what he could toward improving the funds. It was thereupon subsequently resolved that before resorting to harsher measures the Union should do all in its power toward winning over the enemy. Brother Knight Dennis Quigg was thereupon deputed to call upon Mrs. Grogan and invite her into the Union.
On brother Knight Dennis Quigg's declining for private reasons the honorable mission intrusted to him by the honorable board (Mr. Quigg's exact words of refusal, whispered in the chairman's ear, were, “I'm a-jollyin' one of her kittens; send somebody else after the old cat”), another walking delegate, brother Knight Crimmins by name, was selected to carry out the gracious action of the committee.
Crimmins had begun life as a plumber's helper, had been iceman, night-watchman, heeler, and full-fledged plumber; and having been out of work himself for months at a time, was admirably qualified to speak of the advantages of idleness to any other candidate for like honors.
He was a small man with a big nose, grizzled chin-whiskers, and rum-and-watery eyes, and wore constantly a pair of patched blue overalls as a badge of his laborship. The seat of these outside trousers showed more wear than his hands.
Immediately upon his appointment, Crimmins went to McGaw's house to talk over the line of attack. The conference was held in the sitting-room and behind closed doors—so tightly closed that young Billy McGaw, with one eye in mourning from the effect of a recent street fight, was unable, even by the aid of the undamaged eye and the keyhole, to get the slightest inkling of what was going on inside.
When the door was finally opened and McGaw and Crimmins came out, they brought with them an aroma the pungency of which was explained by two empty glasses and a black bottle decorating one end of the only table in the room.
As Crimmins stepped down from the broken stoop, with its rusty rain-spout and rotting floor-planks, Billy overheard this parting remark from his father: “Thry the ile furst, Crimmy, an' see what she'll do; thin give her the vinegar; and thin,” with an oath, “ef that don't fetch 'er, come back here to me and we'll give 'er the red pepper.”
Brother Knight Crimmins waved his hand to the speaker. “Just leave 'er to me, Dan,” he said, and started for Tom's house. Crimmins was delighted with his mission. He felt sure of bringing back her application within an hour. Nothing ever pleased him so much as to work a poor woman into an agony of fright with threats of the Union. Wives and daughters had often followed him out into the street, begging him to let the men alone for another week until they could pay the rent. Sometimes, when he relented, the more grateful would bless him for his magnanimity. This increased his self-respect.
Tom met him at the door. She had been sitting up with a sick child of Dick Todd, foreman at the brewery, and had just come home. Hardly a week passed without some one in distress sending for her. She had never seen Crimmins before, and thought he had come to mend the roof. His first words, however, betrayed him:—
“The Knights sent me up to have a word wid ye.”
Tom made a movement as if to shut the door in his face; then she paused for an instant, and said curtly, “Come inside.”
Crimmins crushed his slouch-hat in his hand, and slunk into a chair by the window. Tom remained standing.
“I see ye like flowers, Mrs. Grogan,” he began, in his gentlest voice. “Them geraniums is the finest I iver see”—peering under the leaves of the plants. “Guess it's 'cause ye water 'em so much.”
Tom made no reply.
Crimmins fidgeted on his chair a little, and tried another tack. “I s'pose ye ain't doin' much just now, weather's so bad. The road's awful goin' down to the fort.”
Tom's hands were in the side pockets of her ulster. Her face was aglow with her brisk walk from the tenements. She never took her eyes from his face, and never moved a muscle of her body. She was slowly revolving in her mind whether any information she could get out of him would be worth the waiting for.
Crimmins relapsed into silence, and began patting the floor with his foot. The prolonged stillness was becoming uncomfortable.
“I was tellin' ye about the meetin' we had to the Union last night. We was goin' over the list of members, an' we didn't find yer name. The board thought maybe ye'd like to come in wid us. The dues is only two dollars a month. We're a-regulatin' the prices for next year, stevedorin' an' haulin', an' the rates 'll be sent out next week.” The stopper was now out of the oil-bottle.
“How many members have ye got?” she asked quietly.
“Hundred an' seventy-three in our branch of the Knights.”
“All pay two dollars a month?”
“That's about the size of it,” said Crimmins.
“What do we git when we jine?”
“Well, we all pull together—that's one thing. One man's strike's every man's strike. The capitalists been tryin' to down us, an' the laborin'-man's got to stand together. Did ye hear about the Fertilizer Company's layin' off two of our men las' Friday just fer bein' off a day or so without leave, and their gittin' a couple of scabs from Hoboken to”—
“What else do we git?” said Tom, in a quick, imperious tone, ignoring the digression. She had moved a step closer.
Crimmins looked slyly up into her eyes. Until this moment he had been addressing his remarks to the brass ornament on the extreme top of the cast-iron stove. Tom's expression of face did not reassure him; in fact, the steady gaze of her clear gray eye was as uncomfortable as the focused light of a sun lens.
“Well—we help each other,” he blurted out.
“Do you do any helpin'?”
“Yis;” stiffening a little. “I'm the walkin' delegate of our branch.”
“Oh, ye're the walkin' delegate! You don't pay no two dollars, then, do ye?”
“No. There's got to be somebody a-goin' round all the time, an' Dinnis Quigg and me's confidential agents of the branch, an' what we says goes”—slapping his overalls decisively with his fist. McGaw's suggested stopper was being loosened on the vinegar.
Tom's fingers closed tightly. Her collar began to feel small. “An' I s'pose if ye said I should pay me men double wages, and put up the price o' haulin' so high that me customers could n't pay it, so that some of yer dirty loafers could cut in an' git it, I'd have to do it, whether I wanted to or not; or maybe ye think I'd oughter chuck some o' me own boys into the road because they don't belong to yer branch, as ye call it, and git a lot o' dead beats to work in their places who don't know a horse from a coal-bucket. An' ye'll help me, will ye? Come out here on the front porch, Mr. Crimmins”—opening the door with a jerk. “Do ye see that stable over there! Well, it covers seven horses; an' the shed has six carts with all the harness. Back of it—perhaps if ye stand on yer toes even a little feller like you can see the top of another shed. That one has me derricks an' tools.”
Crimmins tried to interrupt long enough to free McGaw's red pepper, but her words poured out in a torrent.
“Now ye can go back an' tell Dan McGaw an' the balance of yer two-dollar loafers that there ain't a dollar owin' on any horse in my stable, an' that I've earned everything I've got without a man round to help 'cept those I pays wages to. An' ye can tell 'em, too, that I'll hire who I please, an' pay 'em what they oughter git; an' I'll do me own haulin' an' unloadin' fer nothin' if it suits me. When ye said ye were a walkin' delegate ye spoke God's truth. Ye'd be a ridin' delegate if ye could; but there's one thing ye'll niver be, an' that's a workin' delegate, as long as ye kin find fools to pay ye wages fer bummin' round day 'n' night. If I had me way, ye would walk, but it would be on yer uppers, wid yer bare feet to the road.”
Crimmins again attempted to speak, but she raised her arm threateningly: “Now, if it's walkin' ye are, ye can begin right away. Let me see ye earn yer wages down that garden an' into the road. Come, lively now, before I disgrace meself a-layin' hands on the likes of ye!”