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   Chapter 5 No.5

Windy McPherson's Son By Sherwood Anderson Characters: 18071

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Sam was a half-grown man of fifteen when the call of the city came to him. For six years he had been upon the streets. He had seen the sun come up hot and red over the corn fields, and had stumbled through the streets in the bleak darkness of winter mornings, when the trains from the north came into Caxton covered with ice, and the trainmen stood on the deserted little platform whipping their arms and calling to Jerry Donlin to hurry with his work that they might get back into the warm stale air of the smoking car.

In the six years the boy had grown more and more determined to become a man of money. Fed by banker Walker, the silent mother, and in some subtle way by the very air he breathed, the belief within him that to make money and to have money would in some way make up for the old half-forgotten humiliations in the life of the McPherson family and would set it on a more secure foundation than the wobbly Windy had provided, grew and influenced his thoughts and his acts. Tirelessly he kept at his efforts to get ahead. In his bed at night he dreamed of dollars. Jane McPherson had herself a passion for frugality. In spite of Windy's incompetence and her own growing ill health, she would not permit the family to go into debt, and although, in the long hard winters, Sam sometimes ate cornmeal mush until his mind revolted at the thought of a corn field, yet was the rent of the little house paid on the scratch, and her boy fairly driven to increase the totals in the yellow bankbook. Even Valmore, who since the death of his wife had lived in a loft above his shop and who was a blacksmith of the old days, a workman first and a money maker later, did not despise the thought of gain.

"It is money makes the mare go," he said with a kind of reverence as banker Walker, fat, sleek, and prosperous, walked pompously out of Wildman's grocery.

Of John Telfer's attitude toward money-making, the boy was uncertain. The man followed with joyous abandonment the impulse of the moment.

"That's right," he cried impatiently when Sam, who had begun to express opinions at the gatherings in the grocery, pointed out hesitatingly that the papers took account of men of wealth no matter what their achievements, "Make money! Cheat! Lie! Be one of the men of the big world! Get your name up for a modern, high-class American!"

And in the next breath, turning upon Freedom Smith who had begun to berate the boy for not sticking to the schools and who predicted that the day would come when Sam would regret his lack of book learning, he shouted, "Let the schools go! They are but musty beds in which old clerkliness lies asleep!"

Among the travelling men who came to Caxton to sell goods, the boy, who had continued the paper selling even after attaining the stature of a man, was a favourite. Sitting in chairs before the New Leland House they talked to him of the city and of the money to be made there.

"It is the place for a live young man," they said.

Sam had a talent for drawing people into talk of themselves and of their affairs and began to cultivate travelling men. From them, he got into his nostrils a whiff of the city and, listening to them, he saw the great ways filled with hurrying people, the tall buildings touching the sky, the men running about intent upon money-making, and the clerks going on year after year on small salaries getting nowhere, a part of, and yet not understanding, the impulses and motives of the enterprises that supported them.

In this picture Sam thought he saw a place for himself. He conceived of life in the city as a great game in which he believed he could play a sterling part. Had he not in Caxton brought something out of nothing, had he not systematised and monopolised the selling of papers, had he not introduced the vending of popcorn and peanuts from baskets to the Saturday night crowds? Already boys went out in his employ, already the totals in the bank book had crept to more than seven hundred dollars. He felt within him a glow of pride at the thought of what he had done and would do.

"I will be richer than any man in town here," he declared in his pride. "I will be richer than Ed Walker."

Saturday night was the great night in Caxton life. For it the clerks in the stores prepared, for it Sam sent forth his peanut and popcorn venders, for it Art Sherman rolled up his sleeves and put the glasses close by the beer tap under the bar, and for it the mechanics, the farmers, and the labourers dressed in their Sunday best and came forth to mingle with their fellows. On Main Street crowds packed the stores, the sidewalks, and drinking places, and men stood about in groups talking while young girls with their lovers walked up and down. In the hall over Geiger's drug store a dance went on and the voice of the caller-off rose above the clatter of voices and the stamping of horses in the street. Now and then a fight broke out among the roisterers in Piety Hollow. Once a young farm hand was killed with a knife.

In and out through the crowd Sam went, pressing his wares.

"Remember the long quiet Sunday afternoon," he said, pushing a paper into the hands of a slow-thinking farmer. "Recipes for cooking new dishes," he urged to the farmer's wife. "There is a page of new fashions in dress," he told the young girl.

Not until the last light was out in the last saloon in Piety Hollow, and the last roisterer had driven off into the darkness carrying a Saturday paper in his pocket, did Sam close the day's business.

And it was on a Saturday night that he decided to drop paper selling.

"I will take you into business with me," announced Freedom Smith, stopping him as he hurried by. "You are getting too old to sell papers and you know too much."

Sam, still intent upon the money to be made on that particular Saturday night, did not stop to discuss the matter with Freedom, but for a year he had been looking quietly about for something to go into and now he nodded his head as he hurried away.

"It is the end of romance," shouted Telfer, who stood beside Freedom Smith before Geiger's drug store and who had heard the offer. "A boy, who has seen the secret workings of my mind, who has heard me spout Poe and Browning, will become a merchant, dealing in stinking hides. I am overcome by the thought."

The next day, sitting in the garden back of his house, Telfer talked to Sam of the matter at length.

"For you, my boy, I put the matter of money in the first place," he declared, leaning back in his chair, smoking a cigarette and from time to time tapping Eleanor on the shoulder with his cane. "For any boy I put money-making in the first place. It is only women and fools who despise money-making. Look at Eleanor here. The time and thought she puts into the selling of hats would be the death of me, but it has been the making of her. See how fine and purposeful she has become. Without the millinery business she would be a purposeless fool intent upon clothes and with it she is all a woman should be. It is like a child to her."

Eleanor, who had turned to laugh at her husband, looked instead at the ground and a shadow crossed her face. Telfer, who had begun talking thoughtlessly, out of his excess of words, glanced from the woman to the boy. He knew that the suggestion regarding a child had touched a secret regret in Eleanor, and began trying to efface the shadow on her face by throwing himself into the subject that chanced to be on his tongue, making the words roll and tumble from his lips.

"No matter what may come in the future, in our day money-making precedes many virtues that are forever on men's lips," he declared fiercely as though trying to down an opponent. "It is one of the virtues that proves man not a savage. It has lifted him up-not money-making, but the power to make money. Money makes life livable. It gives freedom and destroys fear. Having it means sanitary houses and well-made clothes. It brings into men's lives beauty and the love of beauty. It enables a man to go adventuring after the stuff of life as I have done.

"Writers are fond of telling stories of the crude excesses of great wealth," he went on hurriedly, glancing again at Eleanor. "No doubt the things they tell of do happen. Money, and not the ability and the instinct to make money, is at fault. And what of the cruder excesses of poverty, the drunken men who beat and starve their families, the grim silences of the crowded, unsanitary houses of the poor, the inefficient, and the defeated? Go sit around the lounging room of the most vapid rich man's city club as I have done, and then sit among the workers of a factory at the noon hour. Virtue, you will find, is no fonder of poverty than you and I, and the man who has merely learned to be industrious, and who has not acquired that eager hunger and shrewdness that enables him to get on, may build up a strong dexterous body while his mind is diseased and decaying."

Grasping his cane and beginning to be carried away by the w

ind of his eloquence Telfer forgot Eleanor and talked for his love of talking.

"The mind that has in it the love of the beautiful, that stuff that makes our poets, artists, musicians, and actors, needs this turn for shrewd money getting or it will destroy itself," he declared. "And the really great artists have it. In books and stories the great men starve in garrets. In real life they are more likely to ride in carriages on Fifth Avenue and have country places on the Hudson. Go, see for yourself. Visit the starving genius in his garret. It is a hundred to one that you will find him not only incapable in money getting but also incapable in the very art for which he starves."

After the hurried word from Freedom Smith, Sam began looking for a buyer for the paper business. The place offered appealed to him and he wanted a chance at it. In the buying of potatoes, butter, eggs, apples, and hides he thought he could make money, also, he knew that the dogged persistency with which he had kept at the putting of money in the bank had caught Freedom's imagination, and he wanted to take advantage of the fact.

Within a few days the deal was made. Sam got three hundred and fifty dollars for the list of newspaper customers, the peanut and popcorn business and the transfer of the exclusive agencies he had arranged with the dailies of Des Moines and St. Louis. Two boys bought the business, backed by their fathers. A talk in the back room of the bank, with the cashier telling of Sam's record as a depositor, and the seven hundred dollars surplus clinched the deal. When it came to the deal with Freedom, Sam took him into the back room at the bank and showed his savings as he had shown them to the fathers of the two boys. Freedom was impressed. He thought the boy would make money for him. Twice within a week Sam had seen the silent suggestive power of cash.

The deal Sam made with Freedom included a fair weekly wage, enough to more than take care of all his wants, and in addition he was to have two-thirds of all he saved Freedom in the buying. Freedom on the other hand was to furnish horse, vehicle, and keep for the horse, while Sam was to take care of the horse. The prices to be paid for the things bought were to be fixed each morning by Freedom, and if Sam bought at less than the prices named two-thirds of the savings went to him. The arrangement was suggested by Sam, who thought he would make more from the saving than from the wage.

Freedom Smith discussed even the most trivial matter in a loud voice, roaring and shouting in the store and on the streets. He was a great inventor of descriptive names, having a name of his own for every man, woman and child he knew and liked. "Old Maybe-Not" he called Windy McPherson and would roar at him in the grocery asking him not to shed rebel blood in the sugar barrel. He drove about the country in a low phaeton buggy that rattled and squeaked enormously and had a wide rip in the top. To Sam's knowledge neither the buggy nor Freedom were washed during his stay with the man. He had a method of his own in buying. Stopping in front of a farm house he would sit in his buggy and roar until the farmer came out of the field or the house to talk with him. And then haggling and shouting he would make his deal or drive on his way while the farmer, leaning on the fence, laughed as at a wayward child.

Freedom lived in a large old brick house facing one of Caxton's best streets. His house and yard were an eyesore to his neighbours who liked him personally. He knew this and would stand on his front porch laughing and roaring about it. "Good morning, Mary," he would shout at the neat German woman across the street. "Wait and you'll see me clean up about here. I'm going at it right now. I'm going to brush the flies off the fence first."

Once he ran for a county office and got practically every vote in the county.

Freedom had a passion for buying up old half-worn buggies and agricultural implements, bringing them home to stand in the yard, gathering rust and decay, and swearing they were as good as new. In the lot were a half dozen buggies and a family carriage or two, a traction engine, a mowing machine, several farm wagons and other farm tools gone beyond naming. Every few days he came home bringing a new prize. They overflowed the yard and crept onto the porch. Sam never knew him to sell any of this stuff. He had at one time sixteen sets of harness all broken and unrepaired in the barn and in a shed back of the house. A great flock of chickens and two or three pigs wandered about among this junk and all the children of the neighbourhood joined Freedom's four and ran howling and shouting over and under the mass.

Freedom's wife, a pale, silent woman, rarely came out of the house. She had a liking for the industrious, hard-working Sam and occasionally stood at the back door and talked with him in a low, even voice at evening as he stood unhitching his horse after a day on the road. Both she and Freedom treated him with great respect.

As a buyer Sam was even more successful than at the paper selling. He was a buyer by instinct, working a wide stretch of country very systematically and within a year more than doubling the bulk of Freedom's purchases.

There is a little of Windy McPherson's grotesque pretentiousness in every man and his son soon learned to look for and to take advantage of it. He let men talk until they had exaggerated or overstated the value of their goods, then called them sharply to accounts, and before they had recovered from their confusion drove home the bargain. In Sam's day, farmers did not watch the daily market reports, in fact, the markets were not systematised and regulated as they were later, and the skill of the buyer was of the first importance. Having the skill, Sam used it constantly to put money into his pockets, but in some way kept the confidence and respect of the men with whom he traded.

The noisy, blustering Freedom was as proud as a father of the trading ability that developed in the boy and roared his name up and down the streets and in the stores, declaring him the smartest boy in Iowa.

"Mighty little of old Maybe-Not in that boy," he would shout to the loafers in the store.

Although Sam had an almost painful desire for order and system in his own affairs, he did not try to bring these influences into Freedom's affairs, but kept his own records carefully and bought potatoes and apples, butter and eggs, furs and hides, with untiring zeal, working always to swell his commissions. Freedom took the risks in the business and many times profited little, but the two liked and respected each other and it was through Freedom's efforts that Sam finally got out of Caxton and into larger affairs.

One evening in the late fall Freedom came into the stable where Sam stood taking the harness off his horse.

"Here is a chance for you, my boy," he said, putting his hand affectionately on Sam's shoulder. There was a note of tenderness in his voice. He had written to the Chicago firm to whom he sold most of the things he bought, telling of Sam and his ability, and the firm had replied making an offer that Sam thought far beyond anything he might hope for in Caxton. In his hand he held this offer.

When Sam read the letter his heart jumped. He thought that it opened for him a wide new field of effort and of money making. He thought that at last he had come to the end of his boyhood and was to have his chance in the city. Only that morning old Doctor Harkness had stopped him at the door as he set out for work and, pointing over his shoulder with his thumb to where in the house his mother lay, wasted and asleep, had told him that in another week she would be gone, and Sam, heavy of heart and filled with uneasy longing, had walked through the streets to Freedom's stable wishing that he also might be gone.

Now he walked across the stable floor and hung the harness he had taken from the horse upon a peg in the wall.

"I will be glad to go," he said heavily.

Freedom walked out of the stable door beside the young McPherson who had come to him as a boy and was now a broad-shouldered young man of eighteen. He did not want to lose Sam. He had written the Chicago company because of his affection for the boy and because he believed him capable of something more than Caxton offered. Now he walked in silence holding the lantern aloft and guiding the way among the wreckage in the yard, filled with regrets.

By the back door of the house stood the pale, tired-looking wife who, putting out her hand, took the hand of the boy. There were tears in her eyes. And then saying nothing Sam turned and hurried off up the street, Freedom and his wife walked to the front gate and watched him go. From a street corner, where he stopped in the shadow of a tree, Sam could see them there, the wind swinging the lantern in Freedom's hand and the slender little old wife making a white blotch against the darkness.

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