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   Chapter 7 No.7

Windy McPherson's Son By Sherwood Anderson Characters: 15601

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Leaning against the wall under the veranda of Mary Underwood's house, Sam tried to get in his mind a remembrance of what had brought him there. He had walked bareheaded through Main Street and out along a country road. Twice he had fallen, covering his clothes with mud. He had forgotten the purpose of his walk and had tramped on and on. The unexpected and terrible hatred of his father that had come upon him in the tense silence of the kitchen had so paralysed his brain that he now felt light-headed and wonderfully happy and carefree.

"I have been doing something," he thought; "I wonder what it is."

The house faced a grove of pine trees and was reached by climbing a little rise and following a winding road out beyond the graveyard and the last of the village lights. The wild spring rain pounded and rattled on the tin roof overhead, and Sam, his back closely pressed against the front of the house, fought to regain control of his mind.

For an hour he stood there staring into the darkness and watched with delight the progress of the storm. He had-an inheritance from his mother-a love of thunderstorms. He remembered a night when he was a boy and his mother had got out of bed and gone here and there through the house singing. She had sung softly so that the sleeping father did not hear, and in his bed upstairs Sam had lain awake listening to the noises-the rain on the roof, the occasional crash of thunder, the snoring of Windy, and the unusual and, he thought, beautiful sound of the mother singing in the storm.

Now, lifting up his head, he looked about with delight. Trees in the grove in front of him bent and tossed in the wind. The inky blackness of the night was relieved by the flickering oil lamp in the road beyond the graveyard and, in the distance, by the lights streaming out at the windows of the houses. The light coming out of the house against which he stood made a little cylinder of brightness among the pine trees through which the raindrops fell gleaming and sparkling. An occasional flash of lightning lit up the trees and the winding road, and the cannonry of the skies rolled and echoed overhead. A kind of wild song sang in Sam's heart.

"I wish it would last all night," he thought, his mind fixed on the singing of his mother in the dark house when he was a boy.

The door opened and a woman stepped out upon the veranda and stood before him facing the storm, the wind tossing the soft kimono in which she was clad and the rain wetting her face. Under the tin roof, the air was filled with the rattling reverberation of the rain. The woman lifted her head and, with the rain beating down upon her, began singing, her fine contralto voice rising above the rattle of the rain on the roof and going on uninterrupted by the crash of the thunder. She sang of a lover riding through the storm to his mistress. One refrain persisted in the song-

"He rode and he thought of her red, red lips,"

sang the woman, putting her hand upon the railing of the little porch and leaning forward into the storm.

Sam was amazed. The woman standing before him was Mary Underwood, who had been his friend when he was a boy in school and toward whom his mind had turned after the tragedy in the kitchen. The figure of the woman standing singing before him became a part of his thoughts of his mother singing on the stormy night in the house and his mind wandered on, seeing pictures as he used to see them when a boy walking under the stars and listening to the talk of John Telfer. He saw a broad-shouldered man shouting defiance to the storm as he rode down a mountain path.

"And he laughed at the rain on his wet, wet cloak," went on the voice of the singer.

Mary Underwood's singing there in the rain made her seem near and likeable as she had seemed to him when he was a barefoot boy.

"John Telfer was wrong about her," he thought.

She turned and faced him. Tiny streams of water ran from her hair down across her cheeks. A flash of lightning cut the darkness, illuminating the spot where Sam, now a broad-shouldered man, stood with the mud upon his clothes and the bewildered look upon his face. A sharp exclamation of surprise broke from her lips:

"Hello, Sam! What are you doing here? You had better get in out of the rain."

"I like it here," replied Sam, lifting his head and looking past her at the storm.

Walking to the door and standing with her hand upon the knob, Mary looked into the darkness.

"You have been a long time coming to see me," she said, "come in."

Within the house, with the door closed, the rattle of the rain on the veranda roof sank to a subdued, quiet drumming. Piles of books lay upon a table in the centre of the room and there were other books on the shelves along the walls. On a table burned a student's lamp and in the corners of the room lay heavy shadows.

Sam stood by the wall near the door looking about with half-seeing eyes.

Mary, who had gone to another part of the house and who now returned clad in a long cloak, looked at him with quick curiosity, and began moving about the room picking up odds and ends of woman's clothing scattered on the chairs. Kneeling, she lighted a fire under some sticks piled in an open grate at the side of the room.

"It was the storm made me want to sing," she said self-consciously, and then briskly, "we shall have to be drying you out; you have fallen in the road and got yourself covered with mud."

From being morose and silent Sam became talkative. An idea had come into his mind.

"I have come here courting," he thought; "I have come to ask Mary Underwood to be my wife and live in my house."

The woman, kneeling by the blazing sticks, made a picture that aroused something that had been sleeping in him. The heavy cloak she wore, falling away, showed the round little shoulders imperfectly covered by the kimono, wet and clinging to them. The slender, youthful figure, the soft grey hair and the serious little face, lit by the burning sticks caused a jumping of his heart.

"We are needing a woman in our house," he said heavily, repeating the words that had been on his lips as he stumbled through the storm-swept streets and along the mud-covered roads. "We are needing a woman in our house, and I have come to take you there.

"I intend to marry you," he added, lurching across the room and grasping her roughly by the shoulders. "Why not? I am needing a woman."

Mary Underwood was dismayed and frightened by the face looking down at her, and by the strong hands clenched upon her shoulders. In his youth she had conceived a kind of maternal passion for the newsboy and had planned a future for him. Her plans if followed would have made him a scholar, a man living his life among books and ideas. Instead, he had chosen to live his life among men, to be a money-maker, to drive about the country like Freedom Smith, making deals with farmers. She had seen him driving at evening through the street to Freedom's house, going in and out of Wildman's, and walking through the streets with men. In a dim way she knew that an influence had been at work upon him to win him from the things of which she had dreamed and she had secretly blamed John Telfer, the talking, laughing idler. Now, out of the storm, the boy had come back to her, his hands and his clothes covered with the mud of the road, and talked to her, a woman old enough to be his mother, of marriage and of coming to live with him in his house. She stood, chilled, looking into the eager, strong face and the eyes with the pained, dazed look in them.

Under her gaze, something of the old feeling of the boy came back to Sam, and he began vaguely trying to tell her of it.

"It was not the talk of Telfer drove me from you," he began, "it was because

you talked so much of the schools and of books. I was tired of them. I could not go on year after year sitting in a stuffy little schoolroom when there was so much money to be made in the world. I grew tired of the school teachers, drumming with their fingers on the desks and looking out at the windows at men passing in the street. I wanted to get out of there and into the streets myself."

Dropping his hands from her shoulders, he sat down in a chair and stared into the fire, now blazing steadily. Steam began to rise from his trousers legs. His mind, still working beyond his control, began to reconstruct an old boyhood fancy, half his own, half John Telfer's, that had years before come into his mind. It concerned a picture he and Telfer had made of the ideal scholar. The picture had, as its central figure, a stoop-shouldered, feeble old man stumbling along the street, muttering to himself and poking in a gutter with a stick. The picture was a caricature of puttering old Frank Huntley, superintendent of the Caxton schools.

Sitting before the fire in Mary Underwood's house, become, for the moment, a boy, facing a boy's problems, Sam did not want to be such a man. He wanted only that in scholarship which would help him to be the kind of man he was bent on being, a man of the world doing the work of the world and making money by his work. Things he had been unable to get expressed when he was a boy and her friend, coming again into his mind, he felt that he must here and now make it plain to Mary Underwood that the schools were not giving him what he wanted. His brain worked on the problem of how to tell her about it.

Turning, he looked at her and said earnestly: "I am going to quit the schools. It is not your fault, but I am going to quit just the same."

Mary, who had been looking down at the great mud-covered figure in the chair began to understand. A light came into her eyes. Going to the door opening into a stairway leading to sleeping rooms above, she called sharply, "Auntie, come down here at once. There is a sick man here."

A startled, trembling voice answered from above, "Who is it?"

Mary Underwood did not answer. She came back to Sam and, putting her hand gently on his shoulder, said, "It is your mother and you are only a sick, half-crazed boy after all. Is she dead? Tell me about it."

Sam shook his head. "She is still there in the bed, coughing." He roused himself and stood up. "I have just killed my father," he announced. "I choked him and threw him down the bank into the road in front of the house. He made horrible noises in the kitchen and mother was tired and wanted to sleep."

Mary Underwood began running about the room. From a little alcove under a stairway she took clothes, throwing them upon the floor about the room. She pulled on a stocking and, unconscious of Sam's presence, raised her skirts and fastened it. Then, putting one shoe on the stockinged foot and the other on the bare one, she turned to him. "We will go back to your house. I think you are right. You need a woman there."

In the street she walked rapidly along, clinging to the arm of the tall fellow who strode silently beside her. A cheerfulness had come over Sam. He felt he had accomplished something-something he had set out to accomplish. He again thought of his mother and drifting into the notion that he was on his way home from work at Freedom Smith's, began planning the evening he would spend with her.

"I will tell her of the letter from the Chicago company and of what I will do when I go to the city," he thought.

At the gate before the McPherson house Mary looked into the road below the grassy bank that ran down from the fence, but in the darkness she could see nothing. The rain continued to fall and the wind screamed and shouted as it rushed through the bare branches of the trees. Sam went through the gate and around the house to the kitchen door intent upon getting to his mother's bedside.

In the house the neighbour woman sat asleep in a chair before the kitchen stove. The daughter had gone.

Sam went through the house to the parlour and sat down in a chair beside his mother's bed, picking up her hand and holding it in his own. "She must be asleep," he thought.

At the kitchen door Mary Underwood stopped, and, turning, ran away into the darkness along the street. By the kitchen fire the neighbour woman still slept. In the parlour Sam, sitting on the chair beside his mother's bed, looked about him. A lamp burned dimly upon the little stand beside the bed and the light of it fell upon the portrait of a tall, aristocratic-looking woman with rings on her fingers, that hung upon the wall. The picture belonged to Windy and was claimed by him as a portrait of his mother, and it had once brought on a quarrel between Sam and his sister.

Kate had taken the portrait of the lady seriously, and the boy had come upon her sitting in a chair before it, her hair rearranged and her hands lying in her lap in imitation of the pose maintained so haughtily by the great lady who looked down at her.

"It is a fraud," he had declared, irritated by what he believed his sister's devotion to one of the father's pretensions. "It is a fraud he has picked up somewhere and now claims as his mother to make people believe he is something big."

The girl, ashamed at having been caught in the pose, and furious because of the attack upon the authenticity of the portrait, had gone into a spasm of indignation, putting her hands to her ears and stamping on the floor with her foot. Then she had run across the room and dropped upon her knees before a little couch, buried her face in a pillow and shook with anger and grief.

Sam had turned and walked out of the room. The emotions of the sister had seemed to him to have the flavour of one of Windy's outbreaks.

"She likes it," he had thought, dismissing the incident. "She likes believing in lies. She is like Windy and would rather believe in them than not."

* * *

Mary Underwood ran through the rain to John Telfer's house and beat on the door with her fist until Telfer, followed by Eleanor, holding a lamp above her head, appeared at the door. With Telfer she went back through the streets to the front of Sam's house thinking of the terrible choked and disfigured man they should find there. She went along clinging to Telfer's arm as she had clung to Sam's, unconscious of her bare head and scanty attire. In his hand Telfer carried a lantern secured from the stable.

In the road before the house they found nothing. Telfer went up and down swinging the lantern and peering into gutters. The woman walked beside him, her skirts lifted and the mud splashing upon her bare leg.

Suddenly Telfer threw back his head and laughed. Taking her hand he led Mary with a rush up the bank and through the gate.

"What a muddle-headed old fool I am!" he cried. "I am getting old and addle-pated! Windy McPherson is not dead! Nothing could kill that old war horse! He was in at Wildman's grocery after nine o'clock to-night covered with mud and swearing he had been in a fight with Art Sherman. Poor Sam and you-to have come to me and to have found me a stupid ass! Fool! Fool! What a fool I have become!"

In at the kitchen door ran Mary and Telfer, frightening the woman by the stove so that she sprang to her feet and began nervously making the false teeth rattle with her tongue. In the parlour they found Sam, his head upon the edge of the bed, asleep. In his hand he held the cold hand of Jane McPherson. She had been dead for an hour. Mary Underwood stooped over and kissed his wet hair as the neighbour woman came in at the doorway bearing the kitchen lamp, and John Telfer, holding his finger to his lips, commanded silence.

* * *

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