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   Chapter 9 No.9

Windy McPherson's Son By Sherwood Anderson Characters: 31722

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


It was a wonderful place, that South Water Street in Chicago where Sam came to make his business start in the city, and it was proof of the dry unresponsiveness in him that he did not sense more fully its meaning and its message. All day the food stuff of a vast city flowed through the narrow streets. Blue-shirted, broad-shouldered teamsters from the tops of high piled wagons bawled at scurrying pedestrians. On the sidewalks in boxes, bags, and barrels, lay oranges from Florida and California, figs from Arabia, bananas from Jamaica, nuts from the hills of Spain and the plains of Africa, cabbages from Ohio, beans from Michigan, corn and potatoes from Iowa. In December, fur-coated men hurried through the forests of northern Michigan gathering Christmas trees that found their way to warm firesides through the street. And summer and winter a million hens laid the eggs that were gathered there, and the cattle on a thousand hills sent their yellow butter fat packed in tubs and piled upon trucks to add to the confusion.

Into this street Sam walked, thinking little of the wonder of these things and thinking haltingly, getting his sense of the bigness of it in dollars and cents. Standing in the doorway of the commission house for which he was to work, strong, well clad, able and efficient, he looked through the streets, seeing and hearing the hurry and the roar and the shouting of voices, and then with a smile upon his lips went inside. In his brain was an unexpressed thought. As the old Norse marauders looked at the cities sitting in their splendour on the Mediterranean so looked he. "What loot!" a voice within him said, and his brain began devising methods by which he should get his share of it.

Years later, when Sam was a man of big affairs, he drove one day in a carriage through the streets and turning to his companion, a grey-haired, dignified Boston man who sat beside him, said, "I worked here once and used to sit on a barrel of apples at the edge of the sidewalk thinking how clever I was to make more money in one month than the man who raised the apples made in a year."

The Boston man, stirred by the sight of so much foodstuff and moved to epigram by his mood, looked up and down the street.

"The foodstuff of an empire rattling o'er the stones," he said.

"I should have made more money here," answered Sam dryly.

The commission firm for which Sam worked was a partnership, not a corporation, and was owned by two brothers. Of the two Sam thought that the elder, a tall, bald, narrow-shouldered man, with a long narrow face and a suave manner, was the real master, and represented most of the ability in the partnership. He was oily, silent, tireless. All day he went in and out of the office and warehouses and up and down the crowded street, sucking nervously at an unlighted cigar. He was a great worker in a suburban church, but a shrewd and, Sam suspected, an unscrupulous business man. Occasionally the minister or some of the women of the suburban church came into the office to talk with him, and Sam was amused at the thought that Narrow Face, when he talked of the affairs of the church, bore a striking resemblance to the brown-bearded minister of the church in Caxton.

The other brother was a far different sort, and, in business, Sam thought, a much inferior man. He was a heavy, broad-shouldered, square-faced man of about thirty, who sat in the office dictating letters and who stayed out two or three hours to lunch. He sent out letters signed by him on the firm's stationery with the title of General Manager, and Narrow Face let him do it. Broad Shoulders had been educated in New England and even after several years away from his college seemed more interested in it than in the welfare of the business. For a month or more in the spring he took most of the time of one of the two stenographers employed by the firm writing letters to graduates of Chicago high schools to induce them to go East to finish their education; and when a graduate of the college came to Chicago seeking employment, he closed his desk and spent entire days going from place to place, introducing, urging, recommending. Sam noticed, however, that when the firm employed a new man in their own office or on the road it was Narrow-Face who chose the man.

Broad-shoulders had been a famous football player in his day and wore an iron brace on his leg. The offices, like most of the offices on the street, were dark and narrow, and smelled of decaying vegetables and rancid butter. Noisy Greek and Italian hucksters wrangled on the sidewalk in front, and among these went Narrow-Face hurrying about making deals.

In South Water Street Sam did well, multiplying his thirty-six hundred dollars by ten during the three years that he stayed there, or went out from there to towns and cities directing a part of the great flowing river of foodstuff through his firm's front door.

With almost his first day on the street he began seeing on all sides of him opportunity for gain, and set himself industriously at work to get his hand upon money with which to take advantage of the chances that he thought lay so invitingly about. Within a year he had made much progress. From a woman on Wabash Avenue he got six thousand dollars, and he planned and executed a coup that gave him the use of twenty thousand dollars that had come as a legacy to his friend, the medical student, who lived at the Pergrin house.

Sam had eggs and apples lying in warehouse against a rise; game, smuggled across the state line from Michigan and Wisconsin, lay frozen in cold storage tagged with his name and ready to be sold at a long profit to hotels and fashionable restaurants; and there were even secret bushels of corn and wheat lying in other warehouses along the Chicago River ready to be thrown on the market at a word from him, or, the margins by which he kept his hold on the stuff not being forthcoming, at a word from a LaSalle Street broker.

Getting the twenty thousand dollars out of the hands of the medical student was a turning point in Sam's life. Sunday after Sunday he walked with Eckardt in the streets or loitered with him in the parks thinking of the money lying idle in the bank and of the deals he might be turning with it in the street or on the road. Daily he saw more clearly the power of cash. Other commission merchants along South Water Street came running into the office of his firm with tense, anxious faces asking Narrow-Face to help them over rough spots in the day's trading. Broad-Shoulders, who had no business ability but who had married a rich woman, went on month after month taking half the profits brought in by the ability of his tall, shrewd brother, and Narrow-Face, who had taken a liking for Sam and who occasionally stopped for a word with him, spoke of the matter often and eloquently.

"Spend your time with no one who hasn't money to help you," he said; "on the road look for the men with money and then try to get it. That's all there is to business-money-getting." And then looking across to the desk of his brother he would add, "I would kick half the men in business out of it if I could, but I myself must dance to the tune that money plays."

One day Sam went to the office of an attorney named Webster, whose reputation for the shrewd drawing of contracts had come to him from Narrow-Face.

"I want a contract drawn that will give me absolute control of twenty thousand dollars with no risk on my part if I lose the money and no promise to pay more than seven per cent if I do not lose," he said.

The attorney, a slender, middle-aged man with a swarthy skin and black hair, put his hands on the desk before him and looked at the tall young man.

"What collateral?" he asked.

Sam shook his head. "Can you draw such a contract that will be legal and what will it cost me?" he asked.

The lawyer laughed good naturedly. "I can draw it of course. Why not?"

Sam, taking a roll of bills from his pocket, counted the amount upon the table.

"Who are you anyway?" asked Webster. "If you can get twenty thousand and without collateral you're worth knowing. I might be getting up a gang to rob a mail train."

Sam did not answer. He put the contract in his pocket and went home to his alcove at the Pergrins. He wanted to get by himself and think. He did not believe that he would by any chance lose Frank Eckardt's money, but he knew that Eckardt himself would draw back from the kind of deals that he expected to make with the money, that they would frighten and alarm him, and he wondered if he was being honest.

In his own room after dinner Sam studied carefully the agreement drawn by Webster. It seemed to him to cover what he wanted covered, and having got it well fixed in his mind he tore it up. "There is no use his knowing I have been to a lawyer," he thought guiltily.

Getting into bed, he began building plans for the future. With more than thirty thousand dollars at his command he thought that he should be able to make headway rapidly. "In my hands it will double itself every year," he told himself and getting out of bed he drew a chair to the window and sat down, feeling strangely alive and awake like a young man in love. He saw himself going on and on, directing, managing, ruling men. It seemed to him that there was nothing he could not do. "I will run factories and banks and maybe mines and railroads," he thought and his mind leaped forward so that he saw himself, grey, stern, and capable, sitting at a broad desk high in a great stone building, a materialisation of John Telfer's word picture-"You will be a big man of dollars-it is plain."

And then into Sam's mind came another picture. He remembered a Saturday afternoon when a young man had come running into the office on South Water Street, a young man who owed Narrow-Face a sum of money and could not pay it. He remembered the unpleasant tightening of the mouth and the sudden shrewd hard look in his employer's long narrow face. He had not heard much of the talk, but he was aware of a strained pleading quality in the voice of the young man who had said over and over slowly and painfully, "But, man, my honour is at stake," and of a coldness in the answering voice replying persistently, "With me it is not a matter of honour but of dollars, and I am going to get them."

From the alcove window Sam looked out upon a vacant lot covered with patches of melting snow. Beyond the lot facing him stood a flat building, and the snow, melting on the roof, made a little stream that ran down some hidden pipe and rattled out upon the ground. The noise of the falling water and the sound of distant footsteps going homeward through the sleeping city brought back thoughts of other nights when as a boy in Caxton he had sat thus, thinking disconnected thoughts.

Without knowing it Sam was fighting one of the real battles of his life, a battle in which the odds were very much against the quality in him that got him out of bed to look at the snow-clad vacant lot.

There was in the youth much of the brute trader, blindly intent upon gain; much of the quality that has given America so many of its so-called great men. It was the quality that had sent him in secret to Lawyer Webster to protect himself without protecting the simple credulous young medical student, and that had made him say as he came home with the contract in his pocket, "I will do what I can," when in truth he meant, "I will get what I can."

There may be business men in America who do not get what they can, who simply love power. One sees men here and there in banks, at the heads of great industrial trusts, in factories and in great mercantile houses of whom one would like to think thus. They are the men who one dreams have had an awakening, who have found themselves; they are the men hopeful thinkers try to recall again and again to the mind.

To these men America is looking. It is asking them to keep the faith, to stand themselves up against the force of the brute trader, the dollar man, the man who with his one cunning wolf quality of acquisitiveness has too long ruled the business of the nation.

I have said that the sense of equity in Sam fought an unequal battle. He was in business, and young in business, in a day when all America was seized with a blind grappling for gain. The nation was drunk with it, trusts were being formed, mines opened; from the ground spurted oil and gas; railroads creeping westward opened yearly vast empires of new land. To be poor was to be a fool; thought waited, art waited; and men at their firesides gathered their children around them and talked glowingly of men of dollars, holding them up as prophets fit to lead the youth of the young nation.

Sam had in him the making of the new, the commanding man of business. It was that quality in him that made him sit by the window thinking before going to the medical student with the unfair contract, and the same quality had sent him forth night after night to walk alone in the streets when other young men went to theatres or to walk with girls in the park. He had, in truth, a taste for the lonely hours when thought grows. He was a step beyond the youth who hurries to the theatre or buries himself in stories of love or adventure. He had in him something that wanted a chance.

In the flat building across the vacant lot a light appeared at a window and through the lighted window he saw a man clad in pajamas who propped a sheet of music against a dressing-table and who had a shining silver horn in his hand. Sam watched, filled with mild curiosity. The man, not reckoning on an onlooker at so late an hour, began an elaborate and amusing schedule of personation. He opened the window, put the horn to his lips and then turning bowed before the lighted room as before an audience. He put his hand to his lips and blew kisses about, then put the horn to his lips and looked again at the sheet of music.

The note that came out of the window on the still air was a failure, it flattened into a squawk. Sam laughed and pulled down the window. The incident had brought back to his mind another man who bowed to a crowd and blew upon a horn. Getting into bed he pulled the covers about him and went to sleep. "I will get Frank's money if I can," he told himself, settling the matter that had been in his mind. "Most men are fools and if I do not get his money some other man will."

On the next afternoon Eckardt had lunch down town with Sam. Together they went to a bank where Sam showed the profits of deals he had made and the growth of his bank account, going afterward into South Water Street where Sam talked glowingly of the money to be made by a shrewd man who knew the ways of the street and had a head upon his shoulders.

"That's just it," said Frank Eckardt, falling quickly into the trap Sam had set, and hungering for profits; "I have money but no head on my shoulders for using it. I wish you would take it and see what you can do."

With a thumping heart Sam went home across the city to the Pergrin house, Eckardt beside him in the elevated train. In Sam's room the agreement was written out by Sam and signed by Eckardt. At dinner time they had the drygoods buyer in to sign as witness.

And the agreement turned out to Eckardt's advantage. In no year did Sam return him less than ten per cent, and in the end gave back the principal more than doubled so that Eckardt was able to retire from the practice of medicine and live upon the interest of his capital in a village near Tiffin, Ohio.

With the thirty thousand dollars in his hands Sam began to reach out and extend the scope of his ventures. He bought and sold constantly, not only eggs, butter, apples, and grain, but also houses and building lots. Through his head marched long r

ows of figures. Deals worked themselves out in detail in his brain as he went about town drinking with young men, or sat at dinner in the Pergrin house. He even began working over in his head various schemes for getting into the firm by which he was employed, and thought that he might work upon Broad-Shoulders, getting hold of his interest and forcing himself into control. And then, the fear of Narrow-Face holding him back and his growing success in deals keeping his mind occupied, he was suddenly confronted by an opportunity that changed entirely the plans he was making for himself.

Through Jack Prince's suggestion Colonel Tom Rainey of the great Rainey Arms Company sent for him and offered him a position as buyer of all the materials used in their factories.

It was the kind of connection Sam had unconsciously been seeking-a company, strong, old, conservative, known throughout the world. There was, in the talk with Colonel Tom, a hint of future opportunities to get stock in the company and perhaps to become eventually an official-these things were of course remote-to be dreamed of and worked toward-the company made it a part of its policy.

Sam said nothing, but already he had decided to accept the place, and was thinking of a profitable arrangement touching percentages on the amount saved in buying that had worked out so well for him during his years with Freedom Smith.

Sam's work for the firearms company took him off the road and confined him to an office all day long. In a way he regretted this. The complaints he had heard among travelling men in country hotels with regard to the hardship of travel meant nothing to his mind. Any kind of travel was a keen pleasure to him. Against the hardships and discomforts he balanced the tremendous advantages of seeing new places and faces and getting a look into many lives, and he looked back with a kind of retrospective joy on the three years of hurrying from place to place, catching trains, and talking with chance acquaintances met by the way. Also, the years on the road had given him many opportunities for secret and profitable deals of his own.

Over against these advantages the place at Rainey's threw him into close and continuous association with men of big affairs. The offices of the Arms Company occupied an entire floor of one of Chicago's newest and biggest skyscrapers and millionaire stockholders and men high in the service of the state and of the government at Washington came in and went out at the door. Sam looked at them closely. He wanted to have a tilt with them and try if his Caxton and South Water Street shrewdness would keep the head upon his shoulders in LaSalle Street. The opportunity seemed to him a big one and he went about his work quietly and ably, intent upon making the most of it.

The Rainey Arms Company, at the time of Sam's coming with it, was still largely owned by the Rainey family, father and daughter. Colonel Rainey, a grey-whiskered military looking man with a paunch, was the president and largest individual stockholder. He was a pompous, swaggering old fellow with a habit of making the most trivial statement with the air of a judge pronouncing the death sentence, and sat dutifully at his desk day after day looking very important and thoughtful, smoking long black cigars and signing personally piles of letters brought him by the heads of various departments. He looked upon himself as a silent but very important spoke in the government at Washington and every day issued many orders which the men at the heads of departments received with respect and disregarded in secret. Twice he had been prominently mentioned in connection with cabinet positions in the national government, and in talks with his cronies at clubs and restaurants he gave the impression of having actually refused an offer of appointment on both occasions.

Having got himself established as a factor in the management of the business, Sam found many things that surprised him. In every company of which he knew there was some one man to whom all looked for guidance, who at critical moments became dominant, saying "Do this, or that," and making no explanations. In the Rainey Company he found no such man, but, instead, a dozen strong departments, each with its own head and each more or less independent of the others.

Sam lay in his bed at night and went about in the evening thinking of this and of its meaning. Among the department heads there was a great deal of loyalty and devotion to Colonel Tom, and he thought that among them were a few men who were devoted to other interests than their own.

At the same time he told himself there was something wrong. He himself had no such feeling of loyalty and although he was willing to give lip service to the resounding talk of the colonel about the fine old traditions of the company, he could not bring himself to a belief in the idea of conducting a vast business on a system founded upon lip service to traditions, or upon loyalty to an individual.

"There must be loose ends lying about everywhere," he thought and followed the thought with another. "A man will come along, pick up these loose ends, and run the whole shop. Why not I?"

The Rainey Arms Company had made its millions for the Rainey and Whittaker families during the Civil War. Whittaker had been an inventor, making one of the first practical breech-loading guns, and the original Rainey had been a dry-goods merchant in an Illinois town who backed the inventor.

It proved itself a rare combination. Whittaker developed into a wonderful shop manager for his day, and, from the first, stayed at home building rifles and making improvements, enlarging the plant, getting out the goods. The drygoods merchant scurried about the country, going to Washington and to the capitals of the individual states, pulling wires, appealing to patriotism and state pride, taking big orders at fat prices.

In Chicago there is a tradition that more than once he went south of the Dixie line and that following these trips thousands of Rainey-Whittaker rifles found their way into the hands of Confederate soldiers, but this story which increased Sam's respect for the energetic little drygoods merchant, Colonel Tom, his son, indignantly denied. In reality Colonel Tom would have liked to think of the first Rainey as a huge, Jove-like god of arms. Like Windy McPherson of Caxton, given a chance, he would have invented a new ancestor.

After the Civil War, and Colonel Tom's growing to manhood, the Rainey and Whittaker fortunes were merged into one through the marriage of Jane Whittaker, the last of her line, to the only surviving Rainey, and upon her death her fortune, grown to more than a million, stood in the name of Sue Rainey, twenty-six, the only issue of the marriage.

From the first day, Sam began to forge ahead in the Rainey Company. In the buying end he found a rich field for spectacular money saving and money making and made the most of it. The position as buyer had for ten years been occupied by a distant cousin to Colonel Tom, now dead. Whether the cousin was a fool or a knave Sam could never quite decide and did not greatly care, but after he had got the situation in hand he felt that the man must have cost the company a tremendous sum, which he intended to save.

Sam's arrangement with the company gave him, besides a fair salary, half he saved in the fixed prices of standard materials. These prices had stood fixed for years and Sam went into them, cutting right and left, and making for himself during his first year twenty-three thousand dollars. At the end of the year, when the directors asked to have an adjustment made and the percentage contract annulled, he got a generous slice of company stock, the respect of Colonel Tom Rainey and the directors, the fear of some of the department heads, the loyal devotion of others, and the title of Treasurer of the company.

The Rainey Arms Company was in truth living largely upon the reputation built up for it by the first pushing energetic Rainey, and the inventive genius of his partner, Whittaker. Under Colonel Tom it had found new conditions and new competition which he had ignored, or met in a half-hearted way, standing on its reputation, its financial strength, and on the glory of its past achievements. Dry rot ate at its heart. The damage done was not great, but was growing greater. The heads of the departments, in whose hands so much of the running of the business lay, were many of them incompetent men with nothing to commend them but long years of service. And in the treasurer's office sat a quiet young man, barely turned twenty, who had no friends, wanted his own way, and who shook his head over the office traditions and was proud of his unbelief.

Seeing the absolute necessity of working through Colonel Tom, and having a head filled with ideas of things he wanted done, Sam began working to get suggestions into the older man's mind. Within a month after his elevation the two men were lunching together daily and Sam was spending many extra hours behind closed doors in Colonel Tom's office.

Although American business and manufacturing had not yet achieved the modern idea of efficiency in shop and office management, Sam had many of these ideas in his mind and expounded them tirelessly to Colonel Tom. He hated waste; he cared nothing for company tradition; he had no idea, as did the heads of other departments, of getting into a comfortable berth and spending the rest of his days there, and he was bent on managing the great Rainey Company, if not directly, then through Colonel Tom, who, he felt, was putty in his hands.

From his new position as treasurer Sam did not drop his work as buyer, but, after a talk with Colonel Tom, merged the two departments, put in capable assistants of his own, and went on with his work of effacing the tracks of the cousin. For years the company had been overpaying for inferior material. Sam put his own material inspectors into the west side factories and brought several big Pennsylvania steel companies scurrying to Chicago to make restitution. The restitution was stiff, but when Colonel Tom was appealed to, Sam went to lunch with him, bought a bottle of wine, and stiffened his back.

One afternoon in a room in the Palmer House a scene was played out that for days stayed in Sam's mind as a kind of realisation of the part he wanted to play in the business world. The president of a lumber company took Sam into the room, and, laying five one thousand dollar bills upon a table, walked to the window and stood looking out.

For a moment Sam stood looking at the money on the table and at the back of the man by the window, burning with indignation. He felt that he should like to take hold of the man's throat and press as he had once pressed on the throat of Windy McPherson. And then a cold gleam coming into his eyes he cleared his throat and said, "You are short here; you will have to build this pile higher if you expect to interest me."

The man by the window shrugged his shoulders-he was a slender, young-looking man in a fancy waistcoat-and then turning and taking a roll of bills from his pocket he walked to the table, facing Sam.

"I shall expect you to be reasonable," he said, as he laid the bills on the table.

When the pile had reached twenty thousand, Sam reached out his hand and taking it up put it in his pocket. "You will get a receipt for this when I get back to the office," he said; "it is about what you owe our company for overcharges and crooked material. As for our business, I made a contract with another company this morning."

Having got the buying end of the Rainey Arms Company straightened out to his liking, Sam began spending much time in the shops and, through Colonel Tom, forced big changes everywhere. He discharged useless foremen, knocked out partitions between rooms, pushed everywhere for more and better work. Like the modern efficiency man, he went about with a watch in his hand, cutting out lost motion, rearranging, getting his own way.

It was a time of great agitation. The offices and shops buzzed like bees disturbed and black looks followed him about. But Colonel Tom rose to the situation and went about at Sam's heels, swaggering, giving orders, throwing back his shoulders like a man remade. All day long he was at it, discharging, directing, roaring against waste. When a strike broke out in one of the shops because of innovations Sam had forced upon the workmen there, he got upon a bench and delivered a speech-written by Sam-on a man's place in the organisation and conducting of a great modern industry and his duty to perfect himself as a workman.

Silently, the men picked up their tools and started again for their benches and when he saw them thus affected by his words Colonel Tom brought what threatened to be a squally affair to a hurrahing climax by the announcement of a five per cent increase in the wage scale-that was Colonel Tom's own touch and the rousing reception of it brought a glow of pride to his cheeks.

Although the affairs of the company were still being handled by Colonel Tom, and though he daily more and more asserted himself, the officers and shops, and later the big jobbers and buyers as well as the rich LaSalle Street directors, knew that a new force had come into the company. Men began dropping quietly into Sam's office, asking questions, suggesting, seeking favours. He felt that he was getting hold. Of the department heads, about half fought him and were secretly marked for slaughter; the others came to him, expressed approval of what was going on and asked him to look over their departments and to make suggestions for improvements through them. This Sam did eagerly, getting by it their loyalty and support which later stood him in good stead.

In choosing the new men that came into the company Sam also took a hand. The method used was characteristic of his relations with Colonel Tom. If a man applying for a place suited him, he got admission to the colonel's office and listened for half an hour to a talk anent the fine old traditions of the company. If a man did not suit Sam, he did not get to the colonel. "You can't have your time taken up by them," Sam explained.

In the Rainey Company, the various heads of departments were stockholders in the company, and selected from among themselves two men to sit upon the board, and in his second year Sam was chosen as one of these employee directors. During the same year five heads of departments resigning in a moment of indignation over one of Sam's innovations-to be replaced later by two-their stock by a prearranged agreement came back into the company's hands. This stock and another block, secured for him by the colonel, got into Sam's hands through the use of Eckardt's money, that of the Wabash Avenue woman, and his own snug pile.

Sam was a growing force in the company. He sat on the board of directors, the recognised practical head of the business among its stockholders and employees; he had stopped the company's march toward a second place in its industry and had faced it about. All about him, in offices and shops, there was the swing and go of new life and he felt that he was in a position to move on toward real control and had begun laying lines with that end in view. Standing in the offices in LaSalle Street or amid the clang and roar of the shops he tilted up his chin with the same odd little gesture that had attracted the men of Caxton to him when he was a barefoot newsboy and the son of the town drunkard. Through his head went big ambitious projects. "I have in my hand a great tool," he thought; "with it I will pry my way into the place I mean to occupy among the big men of this city and this nation."

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