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   Chapter 6 No.6

Windy McPherson's Son By Sherwood Anderson Characters: 19783

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Sam went along the board sidewalk homeward bound, hurried by the driving March wind that had sent the lantern swinging in Freedom's hand. At the front of a white frame residence a grey-haired old man stood leaning on the gate and looking at the sky.

"We shall have a rain," he said in a quavering voice, as though giving a decision in the matter, and then turned and without waiting for an answer went along a narrow path into the house.

The incident brought a smile to Sam's lips followed by a kind of weariness of mind. Since the beginning of his work with Freedom he had, day after day, come upon Henry Kimball standing by his gate and looking at the sky. The man was one of Sam's old newspaper customers who stood as a kind of figure in the town. It was said of him that in his youth he had been a gambler on the Mississippi River and that he had taken part in more than one wild adventure in the old days. After the Civil War he had come to end his days in Caxton, living alone and occupying himself by keeping year after year a carefully tabulated record of weather variations. Once or twice a month during the warm season he stumbled into Wildman's and, sitting by the stove, talked boastfully of the accuracy of his records and the doings of a mangy dog that trotted at his heels. In his present mood the endless sameness and uneventfulness of the man's life seemed to Sam amusing and in some way sad.

"To depend upon going to the gate and looking at the sky to give point to a day-to look forward to and depend upon that-what deadliness!" he thought, and, thrusting his hand into his pocket, felt with pleasure the letter from the Chicago company that was to open so much of the big outside world to him.

In spite of the shock of unexpected sadness that had come with what he felt was almost a definite parting with Freedom, and the sadness brought on by his mother's approaching death, Sam felt a strong thrill of confidence in his own future that made his homeward walk almost cheerful. The thrill got from reading the letter handed him by Freedom was renewed by the sight of old Henry Kimball at the gate, looking at the sky.

"I shall never be like that, sitting in a corner of the world watching a mangy dog chase a ball and peering day after day at a thermometer," he thought.

The three years in Freedom Smith's service had taught Sam not to doubt his ability to cope with such business problems as might come in his way. He knew that he had become what he wanted to be, a good business man, one of the men who direct and control the affairs in which they are concerned because of a quality in them called Business Sense. He recalled with pleasure the fact that the men of Caxton had stopped calling him a bright boy and now spoke of him as a good business man.

At the gate before his own house he stopped and stood thinking of these things and of the dying woman within. Back into his mind came the old man he had seen at the gate and with him the thought that his mother's life had been as barren as that of the man who depended for companionship upon a dog and a thermometer.

"Indeed," he said to himself, pursuing the thought, "it has been worse. She has not had a fortune on which to live in peace nor has she had the remembrance of youthful days of wild adventure that must comfort the last days of the old man. Instead she has been watching me as the old man watches his thermometer and Father has been the dog in her house chasing playthings." The figure pleased him. He stood at the gate, the wind singing in the trees along the street and driving an occasional drop of rain against his cheek, and thought of it and of his life with his mother. During the last two or three years he had been trying to make things up to her. After the sale of the newspaper business and the beginning of his success with Freedom he had driven her from the washtub and since the beginning of her ill health he had spent evening after evening with her instead of going to Wildman's to sit with the four friends and hear the talk that went on among them. No more did he walk with Telfer or Mary Underwood on country roads but sat, instead, by the bedside of the sick woman or, the night falling fair, helped her to an arm chair upon the grass plot at the front of the house.

The years, Sam felt, had been good years. They had brought him an understanding of his mother and had given a seriousness and purpose to the ambitious plans he continued to make for himself. Alone together, the mother and he had talked little, the habit of a lifetime making much speech impossible to her and the growing understanding of her making it unnecessary to him. Now in the darkness, before the house, he thought of the evenings he had spent with her and of the pitiful waste that had been made of her fine life. Things that had hurt him and against which he had been bitter and unforgiving became of small import, even the doings of the pretentious Windy, who in the face of Jane's illness continued to go off after pension day for long periods of drunkenness, and who only came home to weep and wail through the house, when the pension money was gone, regretting, Sam tried in fairness to think, the loss of both the washwoman and the wife.

"She has been the most wonderful woman in the world," he told himself and tears of happiness came into his eyes at the thought of his friend, John Telfer, who in bygone days had praised the mother to the newsboy trotting beside him on moonlit roads. Into his mind came a picture of her long gaunt face, ghastly now against the white of the pillows. A picture of George Eliot, tacked to the wall behind a broken harness in the kitchen of Freedom Smith's house, had caught his eye some days before, and in the darkness he took it from his pocket and put it to his lips, realising that in some indescribable way it was like his mother as she had been before her illness. Freedom's wife had given him the picture and he had been carrying it, taking it out of his pocket on lonely stretches of road as he went about his work.

Sam went quietly around the house and stood by an old shed, a relic of an attempt by Windy to embark in raising chickens. He wanted to continue the thoughts of his mother. He began recalling her youth and the details of a long talk they had held together on the lawn before the house. It was extraordinarily vivid in his mind. He thought that even now he could remember every word that had been said. The sick woman had talked of her youth in Ohio, and as she talked pictures had come into the boy's mind. She had told him of her days as a bound girl in the family of a thin-lipped, hard-fisted New Englander, who had come West to take a farm, and of her struggles to obtain an education, of the pennies saved to buy books, of her joy when she had passed examinations and become a school teacher, and of her marriage to Windy-then John McPherson.

Into the Ohio village the young McPherson had come, to cut a figure in the town's life. Sam had smiled at the picture she drew of the young man who walked up and down the village street with girls on his arms, and who taught a Bible class in the Sunday school.

When Windy proposed to the young school teacher she had accepted him eagerly, thinking it unbelievably romantic that so dashing a man should have chosen so obscure a figure among all the women of the town.

"And even now I am not sorry although it has meant nothing but labour and unhappiness for me," the sick woman had told her son.

After marriage to the young dandy, Jane had come with him to Caxton where he bought a store and where, within three years, he had put the store into the sheriff's hands and his wife into the position of town laundress.

In the darkness a grim smile, half scorn, half amusement, had flitted across the face of the dying woman as she told of a winter when Windy and another young fellow went, from schoolhouse to schoolhouse, over the state giving a show. The ex-soldier had become a singer of comic songs and had written letter after letter to the young wife telling of the applause that greeted his efforts. Sam could picture the performances, the little dimly-lighted schoolhouses with the weatherbeaten faces shining in the light of the leaky magic lantern, and the delighted Windy running here and there, talking the jargon of stageland, arraying himself in his motley and strutting upon the little stage.

"And all winter he did not send me a penny," the sick woman had said, interrupting his thoughts.

Aroused at last to expression, and filled with the memory of her youth, the silent woman had talked of her own people. Her father had been killed in the woods by a falling tree. Of her mother she told an anecdote, touching it briefly and with a grim humour that surprised her son.

The young school teacher had gone to call upon her mother once and for an hour had sat in the parlour of an Ohio farmhouse while a fierce old woman looked at her with bold questioning eyes that made the daughter feel she had been a fool to come.

At the railroad station she had heard an anecdote of her mother. The story ran, that once a burly tramp came to the farmhouse, and finding the woman alone tried to bully her, and that the tramp, and the woman, then in her prime, fought for an hour in the back yard of the house. The railroad agent, who told Jane the story, threw back his head and laughed.

"She knocked him out, too," he said, "knocked him cold upon the ground and then filled him up with hard cider so that he came reeling into town declaring her the finest woman in the state."

In the darkness by the broken shed Sam's mind turned from thoughts of his mother to his sister Kate and of her love affair with the young farmer. He thought with sadness of how she too had suffered because of the failings of the father, of how she had be

en compelled to go out of the house to wander in the dark streets to avoid the endless evenings of war talk always brought on by a guest in the McPherson household, and of the night when, getting a rig from Culvert's livery, she had driven off alone into the country to return in triumph to pack her clothes and show her wedding ring.

Before him there rose a picture of a summer afternoon when he had seen a part of the love making that had preceded this. He had gone into the store to see his sister when the young farmer came in, looked awkwardly about and pushed a new gold watch across the counter to Kate. A sudden wave of respect for his sister had pervaded the boy. "What a sum it must have cost," he thought, and looked with new interest at the back of the lover and at the flushed cheek and shining eyes of his sister. When the lover, turning, had seen young McPherson standing at the counter, he laughed self-consciously and walked out at the door. Kate had been embarrassed and secretly pleased and flattered by the look in her brother's eyes, but had pretended to treat the gift lightly, twirling it carelessly back and forth on the counter and walking up and down swinging her arms.

"Don't go telling," she had said.

"Then don't go pretending," the boy had answered.

Sam thought that his sister's indiscretion, which had brought her a babe and a husband in the same month had, after all, ended better than the indiscretion of his mother in her marriage with Windy.

Rousing himself, he went into the house. A neighbour woman, employed for the purpose, had prepared the evening meal and now began complaining of his lateness, saying that the food had got cold.

Sam ate in silence. While he ate the woman went out of the house and presently returned, bringing a daughter.

There was in Caxton a code that would not allow a woman to be alone in a house with a man. Sam wondered if the bringing of the daughter was an attempt on the part of the woman to abide by the letter of the code, if she thought of the sick woman in the house as one already gone. The thought amused and saddened him.

"You would have thought her safe," he mused. She was fifty, small, nervous and worn and wore a set of ill-fitting false teeth that rattled as she talked. When she did not talk she rattled them with her tongue because of nervousness.

In at the kitchen door came Windy, far gone in drink. He stood by the door holding to the knob with his hand and trying to get control of himself.

"My wife-my wife is dying. She may die any day," he wailed, tears standing in his eyes.

The woman with the daughter went into the little parlour where a bed had been put for the sick woman. Sam sat at the kitchen table dumb with anger and disgust as Windy, lurching forward, fell into a chair and began sobbing loudly. In the road outside a man driving a horse stopped and Sam could hear the scraping of the wheels against the buggy body as the man turned in the narrow street. Above the scraping of the wheels rose a voice, swearing profanely. The wind continued to blow and it had begun to rain.

"He has got into the wrong street," thought the boy stupidly.

Windy, his head upon his hands, wept like a brokenhearted boy, his sobs echoing through the house, his breath heavy with liquor tainting the air of the room. In a corner by the stove the mother's ironing board stood against the wall and the sight of it added fuel to the anger smouldering in Sam's heart. He remembered the day when he had stood in the store doorway with his mother and had seen the dismal and amusing failure of his father with the bugle, and of the months before Kate's wedding, when Windy had gone blustering about town threatening to kill her lover and the mother and boy had stayed with the girl, out of sight in the house, sick with humiliation.

The drunken man, laying his head upon the table, fell asleep, his snores replacing the sobs that had stirred the boy's anger. Sam began thinking again of his mother's life.

The effort he had made to repay her for the hardness of her life now seemed utterly fruitless. "I would like to repay him," he thought, shaken with a sudden spasm of hatred as he looked at the man before him. The cheerless little kitchen, the cold, half-baked potatoes and sausages on the table, and the drunken man asleep, seemed to him a kind of symbol of the life that had been lived in that house, and with a shudder he turned his face and stared at the wall.

He thought of a dinner he had once eaten at Freedom Smith's house. Freedom had brought the invitation into the stables on that night just as to-night he had brought the letter from the Chicago company, and just as Sam was shaking his head in refusal of the invitation in at the stable door had come the children. Led by the eldest, a great tomboy girl of fourteen with the strength of a man and an inclination to burst out of her clothes at unexpected places, they had come charging into the stables to carry Sam off to the dinner, Freedom laughingly urging them on, his voice roaring in the stable so that the horses jumped about in their stalls. Into the house they had dragged him, the baby, a boy of four, sitting astride his back and beating on his head with a woollen cap, and Freedom swinging a lantern and giving an occasional helpful push with his hand.

A picture of the long table covered with the white cloth at the end of the big dining room in Freedom's house came back into the mind of the boy now sitting in the barren little kitchen before the untasted, badly-cooked food. Upon it lay a profusion of bread and meat and great dishes heaped with steaming potatoes. At his own house there had always been just enough food for the single meal. The thing was nicely calculated, when you had finished the table was bare.

How he had enjoyed that dinner after the long day on the road. With a flourish and a roar at the children Freedom heaped high the plates and passed them about, the wife or the tomboy girl bringing unending fresh supplies from the kitchen. The joy of the evening with its talk of the children in school, its sudden revelation of the womanliness of the tomboy girl, and its air of plenty and good living haunted the mind of the boy.

"My mother never knew anything like that," he thought.

The drunken man who had been sleeping aroused himself and began talking loudly-some old forgotten grievance coming back to his mind, he talked of the cost of school books.

"They change the books in the school too often," he declared in a loud voice, turning and facing the kitchen stove, as though addressing an audience. "It is a scheme to graft on old soldiers who have children. I will not stand it."

Sam, enraged beyond speech, tore a leaf from a notebook and scrawled a message upon it.

"Be silent," he wrote. "If you say another word or make another sound to disturb mother I will choke you and throw you like a dead dog into the street."

Reaching across the table and touching his father on the hand with a fork taken from among the dishes, he laid the note upon the table under the lamp before his eyes. He was fighting with himself to control a desire to spring across the room and kill the man who he believed had brought his mother to her death and who now sat bellowing and talking at her very death bed. The desire distorted his mind so that he stared about the kitchen like one seized with an insane nightmare.

Windy, taking the note in his hand, read it slowly and then, not understanding its import and but half getting its sense, put it in his pocket.

"A dog is dead, eh?" he shouted. "Well you're getting too big and smart, lad. What do I care for a dead dog?"

Sam did not answer. Rising cautiously, he crept around the table and put his hand upon the throat of the babbling old man.

"I must not kill," he kept telling himself aloud, as though talking to a stranger. "I must choke until he is silent, but I must not kill."

In the kitchen the two men struggled silently. Windy, unable to rise, struck out wildly and helplessly with his feet. Sam, looking down at him and studying the eyes and the colour in the cheeks, realised with a start that he had not for years seen the face of his father. How vividly it stamped itself upon his mind now, and how coarse and sodden it had become.

"I could repay all of the years mother has spent over the dreary washtub by just one long, hard grip at this lean throat. I could kill him with so little extra pressure," he thought.

The eyes began to stare at him and the tongue to protrude. Across the forehead ran a streak of mud picked up somewhere in the long afternoon of drunken carousing.

"If I were to press hard now and kill him I would see his face as it looks now all the days of my life," thought the boy.

In the silence of the house he heard the voice of the neighbour woman speaking sharply to her daughter. The familiar, dry, tired cough of the sick woman followed. Sam took the unconscious old man in his arms and went carefully and silently out at the kitchen door. The rain beat down upon him and, as he went around the house with his burden, the wind, shaking loose a dead branch from a small apple tree in the yard, blew it against his face, leaving a long smarting scratch. At the fence before the house he stopped and threw his burden down a short grassy bank into the road. Then turning he went, bareheaded, through the gate and up the street.

"I will go for Mary Underwood," he thought, his mind returning to the friend who years before had walked with him on country roads and whose friendship he had dropped because of John Telfer's tirades against all women. He stumbled along the sidewalk, the rain beating down upon his bare head.

"We need a woman in our house," he kept saying over and over to himself. "We need a woman in our house."

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