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   Chapter 8 No.8

Windy McPherson's Son By Sherwood Anderson Characters: 25344

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


For two years Sam lived the life of a travelling buyer, visiting towns in Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa, and making deals with men who, like Freedom Smith, bought the farmers' products. On Sundays he sat in chairs before country hotels and walked in the streets of strange towns, or, getting back to the city at the week end, went through the downtown streets and among the crowds in the parks with young men he had met on the road. From time to time he went to Caxton and sat for an hour with the men in Wildman's, stealing away later for an evening with Mary Underwood.

In the store he heard news of Windy, who was laying close siege to the farmer's widow he later married, and who seldom appeared in Caxton. In the store he saw the boy with freckles on his nose-the same John Telfer had watched running along Main Street on the night when he went to show Eleanor the gold watch bought for Sam and who sat now on the cracker barrel in the store and later went with Telfer to dodge the swinging cane and listen to the eloquence poured out on the night air. Telfer had not got the chance to stand with a crowd about him at the railroad station and make a parting speech to Sam, and in secret he resented the loss of that opportunity. After turning the matter over in his mind and thinking of many fine flourishes and ringing periods to give colour to the speech he had been compelled to send the gift by mail. And Sam, while the gift had touched him deeply and had brought back to his mind the essential solid goodness of the town amid the cornfields, so that he lost much of the bitterness aroused by the attack upon Mary Underwood, had been able to make but a tame and halting reply to the four. In his room in Chicago he had spent an evening writing and rewriting, putting in and taking out flourishes, and had ended by sending a brief line of thanks.

Valmore, whose affection for the boy had been a slow growth and who, now that he was gone, missed him more than the others, once spoke to Freedom Smith of the change that had come over young McPherson. Freedom sat in the wide old phaeton in the road before Valmore's shop as the blacksmith walked around the grey mare, lifting her feet and looking at the shoes.

"What has happened to Sam-he has changed so much?" he asked, dropping a foot of the mare and coming to lean upon the front wheel. "Already the city has changed him," he added regretfully.

Freedom took a match from his pocket and lighted the short black pipe.

"He bites off his words," continued Valmore; "he sits for an hour in the store and then goes away, and doesn't come back to say good-bye when he leaves town. What has got into him?"

Freedom gathered up the reins and spat over the dashboard into the dust of the road. A dog idling in the street jumped as though a stone had been hurled at him.

"If you had something he wanted to buy you would find he talked all right," he exploded. "He skins me out of my eyeteeth every time he comes to town and then gives me a cigar wrapped in tinfoil to make me like it."

* * *

For some months after his hurried departure from Caxton the changing, hurrying life of the city profoundly interested the tall strong boy from the Iowa village, who had the cold, quick business stroke of the money-maker combined with an unusually active interest in the problems of life and of living. Instinctively he looked upon business as a great game in which many men sat, and in which the capable, quiet ones waited patiently until a certain moment and then pounced upon what they would possess. With the quickness and accuracy of a beast at the kill they pounced and Sam felt that he had that stroke, and in his deals with country buyers used it ruthlessly. He knew the vague, uncertain look that came into the eyes of unsuccessful business men at critical moments and watched for it and took advantage of it as a successful prize fighter watches for a similar vague, uncertain look in the eyes of an opponent.

He had found his work, and had the assurance and the confidence that comes with that discovery. The stroke that he saw in the hand of the successful business men about him is the stroke also of the master painter, scientist, actor, singer, prize fighter. It was the hand of Whistler, Balzac, Agassiz, and Terry McGovern. The sense of it had been in him when as a boy he watched the totals grow in the yellow bankbook, and now and then he recognised it in Telfer talking on a country road. In the city where men of wealth and power in affairs rubbed elbows with him in the street cars and walked past him in hotel lobbies he watched and waited saying to himself, "I also will be such a one."

Sam had not lost the vision that had come to him when as a boy he walked on the road and listened to the talk of Telfer, but he now thought of himself as one who had not only a hunger for achievement but also a knowledge of where to look for it. At times he had stirring dreams of vast work to be done by his hand that made the blood race in him, but for the most part he went his way quietly, making friends, looking about him, keeping his mind busy with his own thoughts, making deals.

During his first year in the city he lived in the house of an ex-Caxton family named Pergrin that had been in Chicago for several years, but that still continued to send its members, one at a time, to spend summer vacations in the Iowa village. To these people he carried letters handed him during the month after his mother's death, and letters regarding him had come to them from Caxton. In the house, where eight people sat down to dinner, only three besides himself were Caxton-bred, but thoughts and talk of the town pervaded the house and crept into every conversation.

"I was thinking of old John Moore to-day-does he still drive that team of black ponies?" the housekeeping sister, a mild-looking woman of thirty, would ask of Sam at the dinner table, breaking in on a conversation of baseball, or a tale by one of the boarders of a new office building to be erected in the Loop.

"No, he don't," Jake Pergrin, a fat bachelor of forty who was foreman in a machine shop and the man of the house, would answer. So long had Jake been the final authority in the house on affairs touching Caxton that he looked upon Sam as an intruder. "John told me last summer when I was home that he intended to sell the blacks and buy mules," he would add, looking at the youth challengingly.

The Pergrin family was in fact upon foreign soil. Living amid the roar and bustle of Chicago's vast west side, it still turned with hungry heart toward the place of corn and of steers, and wished that work for Jake, its mainstay, could be found in that paradise.

Jake Pergrin, a bald-headed man with a paunch, stubby iron-grey moustache, and a dark line of machine oil encircling his finger nails so that they stood forth separately like formal flower beds at the edge of a lawn, worked industriously from Monday morning until Saturday night, going to bed at nine o'clock, and until that hour wandering, whistling, from room to room through the house, in a pair of worn carpet slippers, or sitting in his room practising on a violin. On Saturday evening, the habits formed in his Caxton days being strong in him, he came home with his pay in his pocket, settled with the two sisters for the week's living, sat down to dinner neatly shaved and combed, and then disappeared upon the troubled waters of the town. Late on Sunday evening he re-appeared, with empty pockets, unsteady step, blood-shot eyes, and a noisy attempt at self-possessed unconcern, to hurry upstairs and crawl into bed in preparation for another week of toil and respectability. The man had a certain Rabelaisian sense of humour and kept score of the new ladies met on his weekly flights by pencil marks upon his bedroom wall. He once took Sam upstairs to show his record. A row of them ran half around the room.

Besides the bachelor there was a sister, a tall gaunt woman of thirty-five who taught school, and the housekeeper, thirty, mild, and blessed with a remarkably sweet speaking voice. Then there was a medical student in the front room, Sam in an alcove off the hall, a grey-haired woman stenographer, whom Jake called Marie Antoinette, and a buyer from a wholesale dry-goods house, with a vivacious, fun-loving little Southern wife.

The women in the Pergrin house seemed to Sam tremendously concerned about their health and each evening talked of the matter, he thought, more than his mother had talked during her illness. While Sam lived with them they were all under the influence of a strange sort of faith healer and took what they called "Health Suggestion" treatments. Twice each week the faith healer came to the house, laid his hands upon their backs and took their money. The treatment afforded Jake a never-ending source of amusement and in the evening he went through the house putting his hands upon the backs of the women and demanding money from them, but the dry-goods buyer's wife, who for years had coughed at night, slept peacefully after some weeks of the treatment and the cough did not return while Sam remained in the house.

In the house Sam had a standing. Glowing tales of his shrewdness in business, his untiring industry, and the size of his bank account, had preceded him from Caxton, and these tales the Pergrins, in their loyalty to the town and to all the products of the town, did not allow to shrink in the re-telling. The housekeeping sister, a kindly woman, became fond of Sam, and in his absence would boast of him to chance callers or to the boarders gathered in the living room in the evening. She it was who laid the foundation of the medical student's belief that Sam was a kind of genius in money matters, a belief that enabled him later to make a successful assault upon a legacy which came to that young man.

Frank Eckardt, the medical student, Sam took as a friend. On Sunday afternoons they went to walk in the streets, or, taking two girl friends of Frank's, who were also students at the medical school, on their arms, they went to the park and sat upon benches under the trees.

For one of these young women Sam conceived a regard that approached tenderness. Sunday after Sunday he spent with her, and once, walking through the park on an evening in the late fall, the dry brown leaves rustling under their feet and the sun going down in red splendour before their eyes, he took her hand and walked in silence, feeling tremendously alive and vital as he had felt on that other night walking under the trees of Caxton with the dark-skinned daughter of banker Walker.

That nothing came of the affair and that after a time he did not see the girl again was due, he thought, to his own growing interest in money making and to the fact that there was in her, as in Frank Eckardt, a blind devotion to something that he could not himself understand.

Once he had a talk with Eckardt of the matter. "She is fine and purposeful like a woman I knew in my home town," he said, thinking of Eleanor Telfer, "but she will not talk to me of her work as sometimes she talks to you. I want her to talk. There is something about her that I do not understand and that I want to understand. I think that she likes me and once or twice I have thought she would not greatly mind my making love to her, but I do not understand her just the same."

One day in the office of the company for which he worked Sam became acquainted with a young advertising man named Jack Prince, a brisk, very much alive young fellow who made money rapidly, spent it lavishly, and had friends and acquaintances in every office, every hotel lobby, every bar room and restaurant in the down-town section of the city. The chance acquaintance rapidly grew into friendship. The clever, witty Prince made a kind of hero of Sam, admiring his reserve and good sense and boasting of him far and wide through the town. With Prince, Sam occasionally went on mild carouses, and, once, in the midst of thousands of people sitting about tables and drinking beer at the Coliseum on Wabash Avenue, he and Prince got into a fight with two waiters, Prince declaring he had been cheated and Sam, although he thought his friend in the wrong, striking out with his fist and dragging Prince through the door and into a passing street car in time to avoid a rush of other waiters hurrying to the aid of the one who lay dazed and sputtering on the sawdust floor.

After these evenings of carousal, carried on with Jack Prince and with young men met on trains and about country hotels, Sam spent hour after hour walking about t

own absorbed in his own thoughts and getting his own impressions of what he saw. In the affairs with the young men he played, for the most part, a passive r?le, going with them from place to place and drinking until they became loud and boisterous, or morose and quarrelsome, and then slipping away to his own room, amused or irritated as the circumstances, or the temperament of his companions, had made or marred the joviality of the evening. On his nights alone, he put his hands into his pockets and walked for endless miles through the lighted streets, getting in a dim way a realisation of the hugeness of life. All of the faces going past him, the women in their furs, the young men with cigars in their mouths going to the theatres, the bald old men with watery eyes, the boys with bundles of newspapers under their arms, and the slim prostitutes lurking in the hallways, should have interested him deeply. In his youth, and with the pride of sleeping power in him, he saw them only as so many individuals that might some day test their ability against his own. And if he peered at them closely and marked down face after face in the crowds it was as a sitter in the great game of business that he looked, exercising his mind by imagining this or that one arrayed against him in deals, and planning the method by which he would win in the imaginary struggle.

There was at that time in Chicago a place, to be reached by a bridge above the Illinois Central Railroad track, that Sam sometimes visited on stormy nights to watch the lake lashed by the wind. Great masses of water moving swiftly and silently broke with a roar against wooden piles, backed by hills of stone and earth, and the spray from the broken waves fell upon Sam's face and on winter nights froze on his coat. He had learned to smoke, and leaning upon the railing of the bridge would stand for hours with a pipe in his mouth looking at the moving water, filled with awe and admiration of the silent power of it.

One night in September, when he was walking alone in the streets, an incident happened that showed him also a silent power within himself, a power that startled and for the moment frightened him. Walking into a little street back of Dearborn, he was suddenly aware of the faces of women looking out at him through small square windows cut in the fronts of the houses. Here and there, before and behind him, were the faces; voices called, smiles invited, hands beckoned. Up and down the street went men looking at the sidewalk, their coats turned up about their necks, their hats pulled down over their eyes. They looked at the faces of the women pressed against the little squares of glass and then, turning, suddenly, sprang in at the doors of the houses as if pursued. Among the walkers on the sidewalk were old men, men in shabby coats whose feet scuffled as they hurried along, and young boys with the pink of virtue in their cheeks. In the air was lust, heavy and hideous. It got into Sam's brain and he stood hesitating and uncertain, startled, nerveless, afraid. He remembered a story he had once heard from John Telfer, a story of the disease and death that lurks in the little side streets of cities, and ran into Van Buren Street and from that into lighted State. He climbed up the stairway of the elevated railroad and jumping on the first train went away south to walk for hours on a gravel roadway at the edge of the lake in Jackson Park. The wind from the lake and the laughter and talk of people passing under the lights cooled the fever in him, as once it had been cooled by the eloquence of John Telfer, walking on the road near Caxton, and with his voice marshalling the armies of the standing corn.

Into Sam's mind came a picture of the cold, silent water moving in great masses under the night sky and he thought that in the world of men there was a force as resistless, as little understood, as little talked of, moving always forward, silent, powerful-the force of sex. He wondered how the force would be broken in his own case, against what breakwater it would spend itself. At midnight, he went home across the city and crept into his alcove in the Pergrin house, puzzled and for the time utterly tired. In his bed, he turned his face to the wall and resolutely closing his eyes tried to sleep. "There are things not to be understood," he told himself. "To live decently is a matter of good sense. I will keep thinking of what I want to do and not go into such a place again."

One day, when he had been in Chicago two years, there happened an incident of another sort, an incident so grotesque, so Pan-like, so full of youth, that for days after it happened he thought of it with delight, and walked in the streets or sat in a passenger train laughing joyfully at the remembrance of some new detail of the affair.

Sam, who was the son of Windy McPherson and who had more than once ruthlessly condemned all men who put liquor into their mouths, got drunk, and for eighteen hours went shouting poetry, singing songs, and yelling at the stars like a wood god on the bend.

Late on an afternoon in the early spring he sat with Jack Prince in DeJonge's restaurant in Monroe Street. Prince, his watch lying before him on the table and the thin stem of a wine glass between his fingers, talked to Sam of the man for whom they had been waiting a half hour.

"He will be late, of course," he exclaimed, refilling Sam's glass. "The man was never on time in his life. To keep an appointment promptly would take something from him. It would be like the bloom of youth gone from the cheeks of a maiden."

Sam had already seen the man for whom they waited. He was thirty-five, small and narrow-shouldered, with a little wrinkled face, a huge nose, and a pair of eyeglasses that hooked over his ears. Sam had seen him in a Michigan Avenue club with Prince solemnly pitching silver dollars at a chalk mark on the floor with a group of serious, solid-looking old men.

"They are the crowd that have just put through the big deal in Kansas oil stock and the little one is Morris, who handled the publicity for them," Prince had explained.

Later, when they were walking down Michigan Avenue, Prince talked at length of Morris, whom he admired immensely. "He is the best advertising and publicity man in America," he declared. "He isn't a four-flusher, as I am, and does not make as much money, but he can take another man's ideas and express them so simply and forcibly that they tell the man's story better than he knew it himself. And that's all there is to advertising."

He began laughing.

"It is funny to think of it. Tom Morris will do a job of work and the man for whom he does it will swear that he did it himself, that every pat phrase on the printed page Tom has turned out, is one of his own. He will howl like a beast at paying Tom's bill, and then the next time he will try to do the job himself and make a hopeless muddle of it so that he has to send for Tom only to see the trick done over again like shelling corn off the cob. The best men in Chicago send for him."

Into the restaurant came Tom Morris bearing under his arm a huge pasteboard portfolio. He seemed hurried and nervous. "I am on my way to the office of the International Biscuit Turning Machine Company," he explained to Prince. "I can't stop at all. I have here the layout of a circular designed to push on to the market some more of that common stock of theirs that hasn't paid a dividend for ten years."

Thrusting out his hand, Prince dragged Morris into a chair. "Never mind the Biscuit Machine people and their stock," he commanded; "they will always have common stock to sell. It is inexhaustible. I want you to meet McPherson here who will some day have something big for you to help him with."

Morris reached across the table and took Sam's hand; his own was small and soft like that of a woman. "I am worked to death," he complained; "I have my eye on a chicken farm in Indiana. I am going down there to live."

For an hour the three men sat in the restaurant while Prince talked of a place in Wisconsin where the fish should be biting. "A man has told me of the place twenty times," he declared; "I am sure I could find it on a railroad folder. I have never been fishing nor have you, and Sam here comes from a place to which they carry water in wagons over the plains."

The little man who had been drinking copiously of the wine looked from Prince to Sam. From time to time he took off his glasses and wiped them with a handkerchief. "I don't understand your being in such society," he announced; "you have the solid, substantial look of a bucket-shop man. Prince here will get nowhere. He is honest, sells wind and his charming society, and spends the money that he gets, instead of marrying and putting it in his wife's name."

Prince arose. "It is useless to waste time in persiflage," he began and then turning to Sam, "There is a place in Wisconsin," he said uncertainly.

Morris picked up the portfolio and with a grotesque effort at steadiness started for the door followed by Prince and Sam walking with wavering steps. In the street Prince took the portfolio out of the little man's hand. "Let your mother carry it, Tommy," he said, shaking his finger under Morris's nose. He began singing a lullaby. "When the bough bends the cradle will fall."

The three men walked out of Monroe and into State Street, Sam's head feeling strangely light. The buildings along the street reeled against the sky. A sudden fierce longing for wild adventure seized him. On a corner Morris stopped, took the handkerchief from his pocket and again wiped his glasses. "I want to be sure that I see clearly," he said; "it seems to me that in the bottom of that last glass of wine I saw three of us in a cab with a basket of life oil on the seat between us going to the station to catch the train for that place Jack's friend told fish lies about."

The next eighteen hours opened up a new world to Sam. With the fumes of liquor rising in his brain, he rode for two hours on a train, tramped in the darkness along dusty roads and, building a bonfire in a woods, danced in the light of it upon the grass, holding the hands of Prince and the little man with the wrinkled face. Solemnly he stood upon a stump at the edge of a wheatfield and recited Poe's "Helen," taking on the voice, the gestures and even the habit of spreading his legs apart, of John Telfer. And then overdoing the last, he sat down suddenly on the stump, and Morris, coming forward with a bottle in his hand said, "Fill the lamp, man-the light of reason has gone out."

From the bonfire in the woods and Sam's recital from the stump, the three friends emerged again upon the road, and a belated farmer driving home half asleep on the seat of his wagon caught their attention. With the skill of an Indian boy the diminutive Morris sprang upon the wagon and thrust a ten dollar bill into the farmer's hand. "Lead us, O man of the soil!" he shouted, "Lead us to a gilded palace of sin! Take us to a saloon! The life oil gets low in the can!"

Beyond the long, jolting ride in the wagon Sam never became quite clear. In his mind ran vague notions of a wild carousal in a country tavern, of himself acting as bartender, and a huge red-faced woman rushing here and there under the direction of a tiny man, dragging reluctant rustics to the bar and commanding them to keep on drinking the beer that Sam drew until the last of the ten dollars given to the man of the wagon should have gone into her cash drawer. Also, he thought that Jack Prince had put a chair upon the bar and that he sat on it explaining to the hurrying drawer of beer that although the Egyptian kings had built great pyramids to celebrate themselves they never built anything more gigantic than the jag Tom Morris was building among the farm hands in the room.

Later Sam thought that he and Jack Prince tried to sleep under a pile of grain sacks in a shed and that Morris came to them weeping because every one in the world was asleep and most of them lying under tables.

And then, his head clearing, Sam found himself with the two others walking again upon the dusty road in the dawn and singing songs.

On the train, with the help of a Negro porter, the three men tried to efface the dust and the stains of the wild night. The pasteboard portfolio containing the circular for the Biscuit Machine Company was still under Jack Prince's arm and the little man, wiping and re-wiping his glasses, peered at Sam.

"Did you come with us or are you a child we have adopted here in these parts?" he asked.

* * *

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