“Come, then, childer,” said Mrs. McGrath, and took the big iron pot off. They crowded around her, nine of them, the eldest not more than thirteen, the youngest just big enough to hold out his yellow crockery bowl.
“The youngest first,” remarked Mrs. McGrath, and ladled out a portion of the boiled cornmeal to each of the deplorable boys and girls. Before they reached the stools from which they had sprung up, or squatted again on the rough floor, they all burned their mouths in tasting the mush too eagerly. Then there they sat, blowing into their bowls, glaring into them, lifting their loaded iron spoons occasionally to taste cautiously, till the mush had somewhat cooled. [Page 45]
Then, gobble-de-gobble-de-gobble, it was all gone! Though they had neither sugar, nor milk, nor butter to it, they found it a remarkably excellent sample of mush, and wished only that, in quantity, it had been something more.
Peter McGrath sat close beside the cooking-stove, holding Number Ten, a girl-baby, who was asleep, and rocking Number Eleven, who was trying to wake up, in the low, unpainted cradle. He never took his eyes off Number Eleven; he could not bear to look around and see the nine devouring the corn-meal so hungrily. Perhaps McGrath could not, and certainly he would not,—he was so obstinate,—have told why he felt so reproached by the scene. He had felt very guilty for many weeks.
Twenty, yes, a hundred times a day he looked in a dazed way at his big hands, and they reproached him, too, that they had no work.
“Where is our smooth, broad-axe handle?” asked the fingers, “and why do not the wide chips fly?” [Page 46]
He was ashamed, too, every time he rose up, so tall and strong, with nothing to do, and eleven children and his wife next door to starvation; but if he had been asked to describe his feelings, he would merely have growled out angrily something against old John Pontiac.
“You’ll take your sup now, Peter?” asked Mrs. McGrath, offering him the biggest of the yellow bowls. He looked up then, first at her forlorn face, then at the pot. Number Nine was diligently scraping off some streaks of mush that had run down the outside; Numbers Eight, Seven, Six, and Five were looking respectfully into the pot; Numbers Four, Three, Two, and One were watching the pot, the steaming bowl, and their father at the same time. Peter McGrath was very hungry.
“Yourself had better eat, Mary Ann,” he said. “I’ll be having mine after it’s cooler.”
Mrs. McGrath dipped more than a third of the bowlful back into the pot, and ate the rest with much satisfaction. The numerals watched her anxiously but resignedly. [Page 47]
“Sure it’ll be cold entirely, Peter dear,” she said, “and the warmth is so comforting. Give me little Norah now, the darlint! and be after eating your supper.”
She had ladled out the last spoonful of mush, and the pot was being scraped inside earnestly by Nine, Eight, Seven, and Six. Peter took the bowl, and looked at his children.
The earlier numbers were observing him with peculiar sympathy, putting themselves in his place, as it were, possessing the bowl in imagination; the others now moved their spoons absent-mindedly around in the pot, brought them empty to their mouths, mechanically, now and again, sucked them more or less, and still stared steadily at their father.
His inner walls felt glued together, yet indescribably hollow; the smell of the mush went up into his nostrils, and pungently provoked his palate and throat. He was famishing.
“Troth, then, Mary Ann,” he said, “there’s no hunger in me to-night. Sure I wish the [Page 48] childer wouldn’t leave me the trouble of eating it. Come, then, all of ye!”
The nine came promptly to his call. There were just twenty-two large spoonfuls in the bowl; each child received two; the remaining four went to the four youngest. Then the bowl was skilfully scraped by Number Nine, after which Number Seven took it, whirled a cup of water artfully round its interior, and with this put a fine finish on his meal.
Peter McGrath then searched thoughtfully in his trouser pockets, turning their corners up, getting pinches of tobacco dust out of their remotest recesses; he put his blouse pocked through a similar process. He found no pockets in his well-patched overcoat when he took it down, but he pursued the dust into its lining, and separated it carefully from little dabs of wool. Then he put the collection into an extremely old black clay pipe, lifted a coal in with his fingers, and took his supper.
It would be absurd to assert that, on this [Page 49] continent, a strong man could be so poor as Peter, unless he had done something very wrong or very foolish. Peter McGrath was, in truth, out of work because he had committed an outrage on economics. He had been guilty of the enormous error of misunderstanding, and trying to set at naught in his own person, the immutable law of supply and demand.
Fancying that a first-class hewer in a timber shanty had an inalienable right to receive at least thirty dollars a month, when the demand was only strong enough to yield him twenty-two dollars a month, Peter had refused to engage at the beginning of the winter.
“Now, Mr. McGrath, you’re making a mistake,” said his usual employer, old John Pontiac. “I’m offering you the best wages going, mind that. There’s mighty little squared timber coming out this winter.”
“I’m ready and willing to work, boss, but I’m fit to arn thirty dollars, surely.”
“So you are, so you are, in good times, [Page 50] neighbor, and I’d be glad if men’s wages were forty. That could only be with trade active, and a fine season for all of us; but I couldn’t take out a raft this winter, and pay what you ask.”
“I’d work extra hard. I’m not afeard of work.”
“Not you, Peter. There never was a lazy bone in your body. Don’t I know that well? But look, now: if I was to pay you thirty, I should have to pay all the other hewers thirty; and that’s not all. Scorers and teamsters and road-cutters are used to getting wages in proportion to hewers. Why, it would cost me a thousand dollars a month to give you thirty! Go along, now, that’s a good fellow, and tell your wife that you’ve hired with me.”
But Peter did not go back. “I’m bound to have my rights, so I am,” he said sulkily to Mary Ann when he reached the cabin. “The old boss is getting too hard like, and set on money. Twenty-two dollars! No! I’ll go in to Stambrook and hire.” [Page 51]
Mary Ann knew that she might as well try to convince a saw-log that its proper course was up-stream, as to protest against Peter’s obstinacy. Moreover, she did think the offered wages very low, and had some hope he might better himself; but when he came back from Stambrook, she saw trouble ahead. He did not tell her that there, where his merits were not known, he had been offered only twenty dollars, but she surmised his disappointment.
“You’d better be after seeing the boss again, maybe, Peter dear,” she said timidly.
“Not a step,” he answered. “The boss’ll be after me in a few days, you’ll see.” But there he was mistaken, for all the gangs were full.
After that Peter McGrath tramped far and wide, to many a backwoods hamlet, looking vainly for a job at any wages. The season was the worst ever known on the river, and before January the shanties were discharging men, so threatening was the outlook for lumbermen, [Page 52] and so glutted with timber the markets of the world.
Peter’s conscience accused him every hour, but he was too stubborn to go back to John Pontiac. Indeed, he soon got it into his stupid head that the old boss was responsible for his misfortunes, and he consequently came to hate Mr. Pontiac very bitterly.
After supping on his pipeful of tobacco-dust, Peter sat, straight-backed, leaning elbows on knees and chin on hands, wondering what on earth was to become of them all next day. For a man out of work there was not a dollar of credit at the little village store; and work! why, there was only one kind of work at which money could be earned in that district in the winter.
When his wife took Number Eleven’s cradle into the other room, she heard him, through the thin partition of upright boards, pasted over with newspapers, moving round in the dim red flickering fire-light from the stove-grating. [Page 53] The children were all asleep, or pretending it; Number Ten in the big straw bed, where she lay always between her parents; Number Eleven in her cradle beside; Nine crosswise at the foot; Eight, Seven, Six, Five, and Four in the other bed; One, Two, and Three curled up, without taking off their miserable garments, on the “locks” of straw beside the kitchen stove.
Mary Ann knew very well what Peter was moving round for. She heard him groan, so low that he did not know he groaned, when he lifted off the cover of the meal barrel, and could feel nothing whatever therein. She has actually beaten the meal out of the cracks to make that last pot of mush. He knew that all the fish he had salted down in the summer were gone, that the flour was all out, that the last morsel of the pig had been eaten up long ago; but he went to each of the barrels as though he could not realize that there was really nothing left. There were four of those low groans.
“O God, help him! do help him! please [Page 54] do!” she kept saying to herself. Somehow, all her sufferings and the children’s were light to her, in comparison, as she listened to that big, taciturn man groan, and him sore with the hunger.
When at last she came out, Peter was not there. He had gone out silently, so silently that she wondered, and was scared. She opened the door very softly, and there he was, leaning on the rail fence between their little rocky plot and the great river. She closed the door softly, and sat down.
There was a wide steaming space in the river, where the current ran too swiftly for any ice to form. Peter gazed on it for a long while. The mist had a friendly look; he was soon reminded of the steam from an immense bowl of mush! It vexed him. He looked up at the moon. The moon was certainly mocking him; dashing through light clouds, then jumping into a wide, clear space, where it soon became motionless, and mocked him steadily. [Page 55]
He had never known old John Pontiac to jeer any one, but there was his face in that moon,—Peter made it out quite clearly. He looked up the road to where he could see, on the hill half a mile distant, the shimmer of John Pontiac’s big tin-roofed house. He thought he could make out the outlines of all the buildings,—he knew them so well,—the big barn, the stable, the smoke-house, the store-house for shanty supplies.
Pork barrels, flour barrels, herring kegs, syrup kegs, sides of frozen beef, hams and flitches of bacon in the smoke-house, bags of beans, chests of tea,—he had a vision of them all! Teamsters going off to the woods daily with provisions, the supply apparently inexhaustible.
And John Pontiac had refused to pay him fair wages!
Peter in exasperation shook his big fist at the moon; it mocked him worse than ever. Then out went his gaze to the space of mist; [Page 56] it was still more painfully like mush steam. His pigsty was empty, except of snow; it made him think again of the empty barrels in the cabin.
The children empty too, or would be tomorrow,—as empty as he felt that minute. How dumbly the elder ones would reproach him! and what would comfort the younger ones crying with hunger?
Peter looked again up the hill, through the walls of the store-house. He was dreadfully hungry.
“John! John!” Mrs. Pontiac jogged her husband. “John, wake up! there’s somebody trying to get into the smoke-house.”
“Eh—ugh—ah! I’m ’sleep—ugh.” He relapsed again.
“John! John! wake up! There is somebody!”
“What—ugh—eh—what you say?”
“There’s somebody getting into the smoke-house.” [Page 57]
“Well, there’s not much there.”
“There’s ever so much bacon and ham. Then there’s the store-house open.”
“Oh, I guess there’s nobody.”
“But there is, I’m sure. You must get up!”
They both got up and looked out of the window. The snow-drifts, the paths through them, the store-house, the smoke-house, and the other white-washed out-buildings could be seen as clearly as in broad day. The smoke-house door was open!
Old John Pontiac was one of the kindest souls that ever inhabited a body, but this was a little too much. Still he was sorry for the man, no matter who, in that smoke-house,—some Indian probably. He must be caught and dealt with firmly; but he did not want the man to be too much hurt.
He put on his clothes and sallied forth. He reached the smoke-house; there was no one in it; there was a gap, though, where two long flitches of bacon had been! [Page 58]
John Pontiac’s wife saw him go over to the store-house, the door of which was open too. He looked in, then stopped, and started back as if in horror. Two flitches tied together with a rope were on the floor, and inside was a man filling a bag with flour from a barrel.
“Well, well! this is a terrible thing,” said old John Pontiac to himself, shrinking around a corner. “Peter McGrath! Oh, my! oh, my!”
He became hot all over, as if he had done something disgraceful himself. There was nobody that he respected more than that pig-headed Peter. What to do? He must punish him of course; but how? Jail—for him with eleven children! “Oh, my! oh, my!” Old John wished he had not been awakened to see this terrible downfall.
“It will never do to let him go off with it,” he said to himself after a little reflection. “I’ll put him so that he’ll know better another time.”
Peter McGrath, as he entered the store-house, [Page 60] had felt that bacon heavier than the heaviest end of the biggest stick of timber he had ever helped to cant. He felt guilty, sneaking, disgraced; he felt that the literal Devil had first tempted him near the house, then all suddenly—with his own hunger pangs and thoughts of his starving family—swept him into the smoke-house to steal. But he had consented to do it; he had said he would take flour too,—and he would, he was so obstinate! And withal, he hated old John Pontiac worse than ever; for now he accused him of being the cause of his coming to this.
Then all of a sudden he met the face of Pontiac looking in at the door.
Peter sprang back; he saw Stambrook jail—he was his eleven children and his wife—he felt himself a detected felon, and that was worst of all.
“Well, Peter, you’d ought to have come right in,” were the words that came to his ears, in John Pontiac’s heartiest voice. “The missis [Page 60] would have been glad to see you. We did go to bed a bit early, but there wouldn’t have been any harm in an old neighbor like you waking us up. Not a word of that—hold on! listen to me. It would be a pity if old friends like you and me, Peter, couldn’t help one another to a trifling loan of provisions without making a fuss over it.” And old John, taking up the scoop, went on filling the bag as if that were a matter of course.
Peter did not speak; he could not.
“I was going round to your place tomorrow,” resumed John, cheerfully, “to see if I couldn’t hire you again. There’s a job of hewing for you in the Conlonge shanty,—a man gone off sick. But I can’t give more’n twenty-two, or say twenty-three, seeing you’re an old neighbor. What do you say?”
Peter still said nothing; he was choking.
“You had better have a bit of something more than bacon and flour, Peter,” he went on, “and I’ll give you a hand to carry the truck [Page 61] home. I guess your wife won’t mind seeing me with you; then she’ll know that you’ve taken a job with me again, you see. Come along and give me a hand to hitch the mare up. I’ll drive you down.”
“Ah—ah—Boss—Boss!” spoke Peter then, with terrible gasps between. “Boss—O my God, Mr. Pontiac—I can’t never look you in the face again!”
“Peter McGrath—old neighbor,”—and John Pontiac laid his hand on the shaking shoulder,—“I guess I know all about it; I guess I do. Sometimes a man is driven he don’t know how. Now we will say no more about it. I’ll load up, and you come right along with me. And mind, I’ll do the talking to your wife.”
Mary Ann McGrath was in a terrible frame of mind. What had become of Peter?
She had gone out to look down the road, and had been recalled by Number Eleven’s crying. Number Ten then chimed in; Nine, too, awoke, [Page 62] and determined to resume his privileges as an infant. One after another they got up and huddled around her—craving, craving—all but the three eldest, who had been well practised in the stoical philosophy by the gradual decrease of their rations. But these bounced up suddenly at the sound of a grand jangle of bells.
Could it be? Mr. Pontiac they had no doubt about; but was that real bacon that he laid on the kitchen table? Then a side of beef, a can of tea; next a bag of flour, and again an actual keg of syrup. Why, this was almost incredible! And, last, he came in with an immense round loaf of bread! The children gathered about it; old John almost sickened with sorrow for them, and hurrying out his jacknife, passed big hunks around.
“Well, now, Mrs. McGrath,” he said during these operations, “I don’t hardly take it kindly of you and Peter not to have come up to an old neighbor’s house before this for a bit of a [Page 63] loan. It’s well I met Peter to-night. Maybe he’d never have told me your troubles—not but what I blame myself for not suspecting how it was a bit sooner. I just made him take a little loan for the present. No, no; don’t be talking like that! Charity! tut! tut! it’s just an advance of wages. I’ve got a job for Peter; he’ll be on pay to-morrow again.”
At that Mary Ann burst out crying again. “Oh, God bless you, Mr. Pontiac! it’s a kind man you are! May the saints be about your bed!”
With that she ran out to Peter, who still stood by the sleigh; she put the baby in his arms, and clinging to her husband’s shoulder, cried more and more.
And what did obstinate Peter McGrath do? Why, he cried, too, with gasps and groans that seemed almost to kill him.
“Go in,” he said; “go in, Mary Ann—go in—and kiss—the feet of him. Yes— and the boards—he stands on. You don’t know [Page 64] what he’s done—for me. It’s broke I am—the bad heart of me—broke entirely—with the goodness of him. May the heavens be his bed!”
“Now, Mrs. McGrath,” cried old John, “never you mind Peter; he’s a bit light-headed to-night. Come away in and get a bite for him. I’d like a dish of tea myself before I go home.” Didn’t that touch on her Irish hospitality bring her in quickly!
“Mind you this, Peter,” said the old man, going out then, “don’t you be troubling your wife with any little secrets about to-night; that’s between you and me. That’s all I ask of you.”
Thus it comes about that to this day, when Peter McGrath’s fifteen children have helped him become a prosperous farmer, his wife does not quite understand the depth of worship with which he speaks of old John Pontiac. [Page 65]
Mrs. Pontiac never knew the story of the night.
“Never mind who it was, Jane,” John said, turning out the light, on returning to bed, “except this,—it was a neighbor in sore trouble.”
“Stealing—and you helped him! Well, John, such a man as you are!”
“Jane, I don’t ever rightly know what kind of a man I might be, suppose hunger was cruel on me, and on you, and all of us! Let us bless God that he’s saved us from the terriblest temptations, and thank him most especially when he inclines our hearts—inclines our hearts—that’s all.” [Page 66]