Tom Grogan/Chapter 9
WHAT A SPARROW SAW
EVER since the eventful morning when Carl had neglected the Big Gray for a stolen hour with Jennie, Cully had busied himself in devising ways of making the Swede's life miserable. With a boy's keen insight, he had discovered enough to convince him that Carl was “dead mashed on Jennie,” as he put it, but whether “for keeps” or not he had not yet determined. He had already enriched his songs with certain tender allusions to their present frame of mind and their future state of happiness. “Where was Moses when the light went out!” and “Little Annie Rooney” had undergone so subtle a change when sung at the top of Mr. James Finnegan's voice that while the original warp and woof of those very popular melodies were entirely unrecognizable to any but the persons interested, to them they were as gall and wormwood. This was Cully's invariable way of expressing his opinions on current affairs. He would sit on the front-board of his cart,—the Big Gray stumbling over the stones as he walked, the reins lying loose,—and fill the air with details of events passing in the village, with all the gusto of a variety actor. The impending strike at the brewery had been made the basis of a paraphrase of “Johnnie, get your gun;” and even McGaw's red head had come in for its share of abuse to the air of “Fire, boys, fire!” So for a time this new development of tenderness on the part of Carl for Jennie served to ring the changes on “Moses” and “Annie Rooney.”
Carl's budding hopes had been slightly nipped by the cold look in Tom's eye when she asked him if it took an hour to give Jennie a tattered apron. With some disappointment he noticed that except at rare intervals, and only when Tom was at home, he was no longer invited to the house. He had always been a timid, shrinking fellow where a woman was concerned, having followed the sea and lived among men since he was sixteen years old. During these earlier years he had made two voyages in the Pacific, and another to the whaling-ground in the Arctic seas. On this last voyage, in a gale of wind, he had saved all the lives aboard a brig, the crew helpless from scurvy. When the lifeboat reached the lee of her stern, Carl at the risk of his life climbed aboard, caught a line, and lowered the men, one by one, into the rescuing yawl. He could with perfect equanimity have faced another storm and rescued a second crew any hour of the day or night, but he could not face a woman's displeasure. Moreover, what Tom wanted done was law to Carl. She had taken him out of the streets and given him a home. He would serve her in whatever way she wished as long as he lived.
He and Gran'pop were fast friends. On rainy days, or when work was dull in the winter months, the old man would often come into Carl's little chamber, next the harness-room in the stable, and sit on his bed by the hour. And Carl would tell him about his people at home, and show him the pictures tacked over his bed, those of his old mother with her white cap, and of the young sister who was soon to be married.
On Sundays Carl followed Tom and her family to church, waiting until they had left the house. He always sat far back near the door, so that he could see them come out. Then he would overtake Pop with Patsy, whenever the little fellow could go. This was not often, for now there were many days when the boy had to lie all day on the lounge in the sitting-room, poring over his books or playing with Stumpy, brought into the kitchen to amuse him.
Since the day of Tom's warning look, Carl rarely joined her daughter. Jennie would loiter by the way, speaking to the girls, but he would hang back. He felt that Tom did not want them together.
One spring morning, however, a new complication arose. It was a morning when the sky was a delicate violet-blue, when the sunlight came tempered through a tender land haze and a filmy mist from the still sea, when all the air was redolent with sweet smells of coming spring, and all the girls were gay in new attire. Dennis Quigg had been lounging outside the church door, his silk hat and green satin necktie glistening in the sun. When Jennie tripped out Quigg started forward. The look on his face, as with swinging shoulders he slouched beside her, sent a thrill of indignation through Carl. He could give her up, perhaps, if Tom insisted, but never to a man like Quigg. Before the walking delegate had “passed the time of day,” the young sailor was close beside Jennie, within touch of her hand.
There was no love lost between the two men. Carl had not forgotten the proposition Quigg had made to him to leave Tom's employ, nor had Quigg forgotten the uplifted shovel with which his proposal had been greeted. Yet there was no well-defined jealousy between them. Mr. Walking Delegate Dennis Quigg, confidential agent of Branch No. 3, Knights of Labor, had too good an opinion of himself ever to look upon that “tow-headed duffer of a stable-boy” in the light of a rival. Nor could Carl for a moment think of that narrow-chested, red-faced, flashily dressed Knight as being able to make the slightest impression on “Mees Jan.”
Quigg, however, was more than welcome to Jennie to-day. A little sense of wounded pride sent the hot color to her cheeks when she thought of Carl's apparent neglect. He had hardly spoken to her in weeks. What had she done that he should treat her so? She would show him that there were just as good fellows about as Mr. Carl Nilsson.
But all this faded out when Carl joined her—Carl, so straight, clear-skinned, brown, and ruddy; his teeth so white; his eyes so blue! She could see out of the corner of her eye how the hair curled in tiny rings on his temples.
Still it was to Quigg she talked. And more than that, she gave him her prayer-book to carry until she fixed her glove—the glove that needed no fixing at all. And she chattered on about the dance at the boat club, and the picnic which was to come off when the weather grew warmer.
And Carl walked silent beside her, with his head up and his heart down, and the tears very near his eyes.
When they reached the outer gate of the stable-yard, and Quigg had slouched off without even raising his hat,—the absence of all courtesy stands in a certain class for a mark of higher respect,—Carl swung back the gate, and held it open for her to pass in. Jennie loitered for a moment. There was a look in Carl's face she had not seen before. She had not meant to hurt him, she said to herself.
“What mak' you no lak me anna more, Mees Jan? I big annough to carry da buke,” said Carl.
“Why, how you talk, Carl! I never said such a word,” said Jennie, leaning over the fence, her heart fluttering.
The air was soft as a caress. Opal-tinted clouds with violet shadows sailed above the low hills. In the shade of the fence dandelions had burst into bloom. From a bush near by a song-sparrow flung a note of spring across the meadow.
“Well, you nev' cam' to stable anna more, Mees Jan,” Carl said slowly, in a tender, pleading tone, his gaze on her face.
The girl reached through the fence for the golden flower. She dared not trust herself to look. She knew what was in her lover's eyes.
“I get ta flower,” said Carl, vaulting the fence with one hand.
“No; please don't trouble. Oh, Carl!” she exclaimed suddenly. “The horrid brier! My hand's all scratched!” “Ah, Mees Jan, I so sorry! Let Carl see it,” he said, his voice melting. “I tak' ta brier out,” pushing back the tangled vines of last year to bring himself nearer.
The clouds sailed on. The sparrow stood, on its tallest toes and twisted its little neck.
“Oh, please do, Carl, it hurts so!” she said, laying her little round hand in the big, strong, horny palm that had held the life-line the night of the wreck.
The song-sparrow clung to the swaying top of a mullein-stalk near by, and poured out a strong, swelling, joyous song that well-nigh split its throat.
When Tom called Jennie, half an hour later, she and Carl were still talking across the fence.