McGrath's Bad Night by Edward William Thomson
"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 corn-meal
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
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
"Where is our smooth, broad-axe handle?"
asked the fingers, "and why do not the wide
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.
"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
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 trousers pockets, turning their corners up,
getting pinches of tobacco dust out of their
remotest recesses; he put his blouse pocket
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
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,
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
"I'd work extra hard. I'm not afeard of
"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."
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 merit's 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
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,
and so glutted with timber the markets of the
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
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.
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 had 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
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
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.
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
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;
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 children empty too, or would be to-morrow,—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
"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
"John! John! wake up! There is somebody!"
"What—ugh—eh—what you say?"
"There's somebody getting into the smoke-house."
"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
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!
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 pigheaded
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
Peter McGrath, as he entered the store-house
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
saw 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
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 to-morrow,"
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
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,
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 sirup. 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
"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
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
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
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
"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
Thus it comes about that to this day, when
Peter McGrath's fifteen children have helped
him to become a very prosperous farmer, his
wife does not quite understand the depth of
worship with which he speaks of old John
Mrs. Pontiac never knew the story of the
"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