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   Chapter 14 No.14

Windy McPherson's Son By Sherwood Anderson Characters: 27877

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Late one evening, some weeks after the McPhersons had given the dinner party in secret celebration of the future arrival of what was to be the first of the great family, they came together down the steps of a north side house to their waiting carriage. They had spent, Sam thought, a delightful evening. The Grovers were people of whose friendship he was particularly proud and since his marriage with Sue he had taken her often for an evening to the house of the venerable surgeon. Doctor Grover was a scholar, a man of note in the medical world, and a rapid and absorbing talker and thinker on any subject that aroused his interest. A certain youthful enthusiasm in his outlook on life had attracted to him the devotion of Sue, who, since meeting him through Sam, had counted him a marked addition to their little group of friends. His wife, a white-haired, plump little woman, was, though apparently somewhat diffident, in reality his intellectual equal and companion, and Sue in a quiet way had taken her as a model in her own effort toward complete wifehood.

During the evening, spent in a rapid exchange of opinions and ideas between the two men, Sue had sat in silence. Once when he looked at her Sam thought that he had surprised an annoyed look in her eyes and was puzzled by it. During the remainder of the evening her eyes refused to meet his and she looked instead at the floor, a flush mounting her cheeks.

At the door of the carriage Frank, Sue's coachman, stepped on the hem of her gown and tore it. The tear was slight, the incident Sam thought entirely unavoidable, and as much due to a momentary clumsiness on the part of Sue as to the awkwardness of Frank. The man had for years been a loyal servant and a devoted admirer of Sue's.

Sam laughed and taking Sue by the arm started to help her in at the carriage door.

"Too much gown for an athlete," he said, pointlessly.

In a flash Sue turned and faced the coachman.

"Awkward brute," she said, through her teeth.

Sam stood on the sidewalk dumb with astonishment as Frank turned and climbed to his seat without waiting to close the carriage door. He felt as he might have felt had he, as a boy, heard profanity from the lips of his mother. The look in Sue's eyes as she turned them on Frank struck him like a blow and in a moment his whole carefully built-up conception of her and of her character had been shaken. He had an impulse to slam the carriage door after her and walk home.

They drove home in silence, Sam feeling as though he rode beside a new and strange being. In the light of passing street lamps he could see her face held straight ahead and her eyes staring stonily at the curtain in front. He didn't want to reproach her; he wanted to take hold of her arm and shake her. "I should like to take the whip from in front of Frank's seat and give her a sound beating," he told himself.

At the house Sue jumped out of the carriage and, running past him in at the door, closed it after her. Frank drove off toward the stables and when Sam went into the house he found Sue standing half way up the stairs leading to her room and waiting for him.

"I presume you do not know that you have been openly insulting me all evening," she cried. "Your beastly talk there at the Grovers-it was unbearable-who are these women? Why parade your past life before me?"

Sam said nothing. He stood at the foot of the stairs and looked up at her and then, turning, just as she, running up the stairs, slammed the door of her own room, he went into the library. A wood fire burned in the grate and he sat down and lighted his pipe. He did not try to think the thing out. He felt that he was in the presence of a lie and that the Sue who had lived in his mind and in his affections no longer existed, that in her place there was this other woman, this woman who had insulted her own servant and had perverted and distorted the meaning of his talk during the evening.

Sitting by the fire filling and refilling his pipe, Sam went carefully over every word, gesture, and incident of the evening at the Grovers and could get hold of no part of it that he thought might in fairness serve as an excuse for the outburst. In the upper part of the house he could hear Sue moving restlessly about and he had satisfaction in the thought that her mind was punishing her for so strange a seizure. He and Grover had perhaps been somewhat carried away, he told himself; they had talked of marriage and its meaning and had both declared somewhat hotly against the idea that the loss of virginity in women was in any sense a bar to honourable marriage, but he had said nothing that he thought could have been twisted into an insult to Sue or to Mrs. Grover. He had thought the talk rather good and clearly thought out and had come out of the house exhilarated and secretly preening himself with the thought that he had talked unusually forcefully and well. In any event what had been said had been said before in Sue's presence and he thought that he could remember her having, in the past, expressed similar ideas with enthusiasm.

Hour after hour he sat in the chair before the dying fire. He dozed and his pipe dropped from his hand and fell upon the stone hearth. A kind of dumb misery and anger was in him as over and over endlessly his mind kept reviewing the events of the evening.

"What has made her think she can do that to me?" he kept asking himself.

He remembered certain strange silences and hard looks from her eyes during the past weeks, silences and looks that in the light of the events of the evening became pregnant with meaning.

"She has a temper, a beast of a temper. Why shouldn't she have been square and told me?" he asked himself.

The clock had struck three when the library door opened quietly and Sue, clad in a dressing gown through which the new roundness of her lithe little figure was plainly apparent, came into the room. She ran across to him and putting her head down on his knee wept bitterly.

"Oh, Sam!" she said, "I think I am going insane. I have been hating you as I have not hated since I was an evil-tempered child. A thing I worked years to suppress in me has come back. I have been hating myself and the baby. For days I have been fighting the feeling in me, and now it has come out and perhaps you have begun hating me. Can you love me again? Will you ever forget the meanness and the cheapness of it? You and poor innocent Frank-Oh, Sam, the devil was in me!"

Reaching down, Sam took her into his arms and cuddled her like a child. A story he had heard of the vagaries of women at such times came back to him and was as a light illuminating the darkness of his mind.

"I understand now," he said. "It is a part of the burden you carry for us both."

For some weeks after the outbreak at the carriage door events ran smoothly in the McPherson house. One day as he stood in the stable door Frank came round the corner of the house and, looking up sheepishly from under his cap, said to Sam: "I understand about the missus. It is the baby coming. We have had four of them at our house," and Sam, nodding his head, turned and began talking rapidly of his plans to replace the carriages with automobiles.

But in the house, in spite of the clearing up of the matter of Sue's ugliness at the Grovers, a subtle change had taken place in the relationship of the two. Although they were together facing the first of the events that were to be like ports-of-call in the great voyage of their lives, they were not facing it with the same mutual understanding and kindly tolerance with which they had faced smaller things in the past-a disagreement over the method of shooting a rapid in a river or the entertainment of an undesirable guest. The inclination to fits of temper loosens and disarranges all the little wires of life. The tune will not get itself played. One stands waiting for the discord, strained, missing the harmony. It was so with Sam. He began feeling that he must keep a check upon his tongue and that things of which they had talked with great freedom six months earlier now annoyed and irritated his wife when brought into an after-dinner discussion. To Sam, who, during his life with Sue, had learned the joy of free, open talk upon any subject that came into his mind and whose native interest in life and in the motives of men and women had blossomed in the large leisure and independence of the last year, this was trying. It was, he thought, like trying to hold free and open communion with the people of an orthodox family, and he fell into a habit of prolonged silences, a habit that later, he found, once formed, unbelievably hard to break.

One day in the office a situation arose that seemed to demand Sam's presence in Boston on a certain date. For months he had been carrying on a trade war with some of the eastern manufacturers in his line and an opportunity for the settlement of the trouble in a way advantageous to himself had, he thought, arisen. He wanted to handle the matter himself and went home to explain to Sue. It was at the end of a day when nothing had occurred to irritate her and she agreed with him that he should not be compelled to trust so important a matter to another.

"I am no child, Sam. I will take care of myself," she said, laughing.

Sam wired his New York man asking him to make the arrangements for the meeting in Boston and picked up a book to spend the evening reading aloud to her.

And then, coming home the next evening he found her in tears and when he tried to laugh away her fears she flew into a black fit of anger and ran out of the room.

Sam went to the 'phone and called his New York man, thinking to instruct him in regard to the conference in Boston and to give up his own plans for the trip. When he had got his man on the wire, Sue, who had been standing outside the door, rushed in and put her hand over the mouthpiece of the 'phone.

"Sam! Sam!" she cried. "Do not give up the trip! Scold me! Beat me! Do anything, but do not let me go on making a fool of myself and destroying your peace of mind! I shall be miserable if you stay at home because of what I have said!"

Over the 'phone came the insistent voice of Central and putting her hand aside Sam talked to his man, letting the engagement stand and making some detail of the conference answer as his need of calling.

Again Sue was repentant and again after her tears they sat before the fire until his train time, talking like lovers.

To Buffalo in the morning came a wire from her.

"Come back. Let business go. Cannot stand it," she had wired.

While he sat reading the wire the porter brought another.

"Please, Sam, pay no attention to any wire from me. I am all right and only half a fool."

Sam was irritated. "It is deliberate pettiness and weakness," he thought, when an hour later the porter brought another wire demanding his immediate return. "The situation calls for drastic action and perhaps one good stinging reproof will stop it for all time."

Going into the buffet car he wrote a long letter calling her attention to the fact that a certain amount of freedom of action was due him, and saying that he intended to act upon his own judgment in the future and not upon her impulses.

Having begun to write Sam went on and on. He was not interrupted, no shadow crossed the face of his beloved to tell him he was hurting and he said all that was in his mind to say. Little sharp reproofs that had come into his mind but that had been left unsaid now got themselves said and when he had dumped his overloaded mind into the letter he sealed and mailed it at a passing station.

Within an hour after the letter had left his hands Sam regretted it. He thought of the little woman bearing the burden for them both, and things Grover had told him of the unhappiness of women in her condition came back to haunt his mind so that he wrote and sent off to her a wire asking her not to read the letter he had mailed and assuring her that he would hurry through the Boston conference and get back to her at once.

When Sam returned he knew that in an evil moment Sue had opened and read the letter sent from the train and was surprised and hurt by the knowledge. The act seemed like a betrayal. He said nothing, going about his work with a troubled mind and watching with growing anxiety her alternate fits of white anger and fearful remorse. He thought her growing worse daily and became alarmed for her health.

And, then, after a talk with Grover he began to spend more and more time with her, forcing her to take with him daily, long walks in the open air. He tried valiantly to keep her mind fixed on cheerful things and went to bed happy and relieved when a day ended that did not bring a stormy passage between them.

There were days during that period when Sam thought himself near insanity. With a light in her grey eyes that was maddening Sue would take up some minor thing, a remark he had made or a passage he had quoted from some book, and in a dead, level, complaining tone would talk of it until his head reeled and his fingers ached from the gripping of his hands to keep control of himself. After such a day he would steal off by himself and, walking rapidly, would try through pure physical fatigue to force his mind to give up the remembrance of the persistent, complaining voice. At times he would give way to fits of anger and strew impotent oaths along the silent street, or, in another mood, would mumble and talk to himself, praying for strength and courage to keep his own head during the ordeal through which he thought they were passing together. And when he returned from such a walk and from such a struggle with himself it often occurred that he would find her waiting in the arm chair before the fire in her room, her mind clear and her little face wet with the tears of her repentance.

And then the struggle ended. With Doctor Grover it had been arranged that Sue should be taken to the hospital for the great event, and they drove there hurriedly one night through the quiet streets, the recurring pains gripping Sue and her hands clutching his. An exalted cheerfulness had hold of them. Face to face with the actual struggle for the new life Sue was transfigured. Her voice rang with triumph and her eyes glistened.

"I am going to do it," she cried; "my black fear is gone. I shall give you a child-a man child. I shall succeed, my man Sam. You shall see. It will be beautiful."

When the pain gripped she gripped at his hand, and a spasm of physical sympathy ran through him. He felt helpless and ashamed of his helplessness.

At the entrance to the hospital grounds she put her face down upon his knees so that the hot tears ran through his hands.

"Poor, poor old Sam, it has been horrible for you."

At the hospital Sam walked up and down in the corridor through the swinging doors at the end of which she had been taken. Every vestige of regret for the trying months now lying behind had passed, and he paced up and down the corridor feeling that he had come to one of those huge moments when a man's brain, his grasp of affairs, his hopes and plans for the future, all of the little details and trivialities of his life, halt, and he waits anxious, breathless, expectant. He looked at a little clock on a table at the end of the corridor, half expecting it to stop also and wait with him. His marriage hour that had seemed so big and vital seemed now, in the quiet corridor, with the stone floor and the silent white-clad, rubber-shod nurses passing up and down and in the presence of this greater event, to have shrunk enormously. He walked up and down peering at the clock, looking at the swinging door and biting at the stem of his empty pipe.

And then through the swinging door came Grover.

"We can get the child, Sam, but to get it we shall have to take a chance with her. Do you want to do that? Do not wait. Decide."

Sam sprang past him toward the door.

"You bungler," he cried, and his voice rang through the long quiet corridor. "You do not know what this means. Let me go."

Doctor Grover, catching him by the arm, swung him about. The two men stood facing each other.

"You stay here," said the doctor, his voice remaining quiet and firm; "I will attend to things. Your going in there would be pure folly now. Now answer me-do you want to take the chance?"

"No! No!" Sam shouted. "No! I want her-Sue-alive and well, back through that door."

A cold gleam came into his eyes and he shook his fist before the doctor's face.

"Do not try deceiving me about this. By God, I will--"

Turning, Doctor Grover ran back through the swinging door leaving Sam staring blankly at his back. A nurse, one whom he had seen in Doctor Grover's office, came out of the door and taking his arm, walked beside him up and down the corridor. Sam put his arm around her shoulder and talked. An illusion that it was necessary to comfort her came to him.

"Do not worry," he said. "She will be all right. Grover will take care of her. Nothing can happen to little Sue."

The nurse, a small, sweet-faced, Scotch woman, who knew and admired Sue, wept. Some quality in his voice had touched the woman in her and the tears ran in a little stream down her cheeks. Sam continued talking, the woman's tears helping him to regain his grip upon himself.

"My mother is dead," he said, an old sorrow revisiting him. "I wish that you, like Mary Underwood, would be a new mother to me."

When the time came that he could be taken to the room where Sue lay, his self-possession had returned to him and his mind had begun blaming the little dead stranger for the unhappiness of the past months and for the long separation from what he thought was the real Sue. Outside the door of the room into which she had been taken he stopped, hearing her voice, thin and weak, talking to Grover.

"Unfit-Sue McPherson unfit," said the voice, and Sam thought it was filled with an infinite weariness.

He ran through the door and dropped on his knees by her bed. She turned her eyes to him smiling bravely.

"The next time we'll make it," she said.

The second child born to the young McPhersons arrived out of time. Again Sam walked, this time through the corridor of his own house and without the consoling presence of the sweet-faced Scotch woman, and again he shook his head at Doctor Grover who came to him consoling and reassuring.

After the death of the second child Sue lay for months in bed. In his arms, in her own room, she wept openly in the presence of Grover and the nurses, crying out against her unfitness. For several days she refused to see Colonel Tom, harbouring in her mind the notion that he was in some way responsible for her physical inability to bear living children, and when she got up from her bed, she remained for months white and listless but grimly determined upon another attempt for the little life she so wanted to feel in her arms.

During the days of her carrying the second baby she had again the fierce ugly attacks of temper that had shattered Sam's nerves, but having learned to understand, he went quietly about his work, trying as far as in him lay to close his ears to the stinging, hurtful things she sometimes said; and the third time, it was agreed between them that if they were again unsuccessful they would turn their minds to other things.

"If we do not succeed this time we might as well count ourselves through with each other for good," she said one day in one of the fits of cold anger that were a part of child bearing with her.

That second night when Sam walked in the hospital corridor he was beside himself. He felt like a young recruit called to face an unseen enemy and to stand motionless and inactive in the presence of the singing death that ran through the air. He remembered a story, told when he was a child by a fellow soldier who had come to visit his father, of the prisoners at Andersonville creeping in the darkness past armed sentries to a little pool of stagnant water beyond the dead line, and felt that he too was creeping unarmed and helpless in the neighbourhood of death. In a conference at his house between the three some weeks before, it had been decided, after tearful insistence on the part of Sue and a stand on the part of Grover, who declared that he would not remain on the case unless permitted to use his own judgment, that an operation should be performed.

"Take the chances that need be taken," Sam had said to Grover after the conference; "she will never stand another defeat. Give her the child."

In the corridor it seemed to Sam that hours had passed and still he stood motionless waiting. His feet felt cold and he had the impression that they were wet although the night was dry and a moon shone outside. When, from a distant part of the hospital, a groan reached his ears he shook with fright and had an inclination to cry out. Two young interns clad in white passed.

"Old Grover is doing a Caesarian section," said one of them; "he is getting out of date. Hope he doesn't bungle it."

In Sam's ears rang the remembrance of Sue's voice, the Sue who that first time had gone into the room behind the swinging doors with the determined smile on her face. He thought he could see again the white face looking up from the wheeled cot on which they had taken her through the door.

"I am afraid, Dr. Grover-I am afraid I am unfit," he had heard her say as the door closed.

And then Sam did a thing for which he cursed himself the rest of his life. On an impulse, and maddened by the intolerable waiting, he walked to the swinging doors and, pushing them open, stepped into the operating room where Grover was at work upon Sue.

The room was long and narrow, with floors, walls and ceiling of white cement. A great glaring light, suspended from the ceiling, threw its rays directly down on a white-clad figure lying on a white metal operating table. On the walls of the room were other glaring lights set in shining glass reflectors. And, here and there through an intense, expectant atmosphere, moved and stood silently a group of men and women, faceless, hairless, with only their strangely vivid eyes showing through the white masks that covered their faces.

Sam, standing motionless by the door, looked about with wild, half-seeing eyes. Grover worked rapidly and silently, taking from time to time little shining instruments from a swinging table close at his hand. The nurse standing beside him looked up toward the light and began calmly threading a needle. And in a white basin on a little stand at the side of the room lay the last of Sue's tremendous efforts toward new life, the last of their dreams of the great family.

Sam closed his eyes and fell. His head, striking against the wall, aroused him and he struggled to his feet.

Without stopping his work, Grover began swearing.

"Damn it, man, get out of here."

Sam groped with his hand for the door. One of the white-clad, ghoulish figures started toward him. And then with his head reeling and his eyes closed he backed through the door and, running along the corridor and down a flight of broad stairs, reached the open air and darkness. He had no doubt of Sue's death.

"She is gone," he muttered, hurrying bareheaded along the deserted streets.

Through street after street he ran. Twice he came out upon the shores of the lake, and, then turning, went back into the heart of the city through streets bathed in the warm moonlight. Once he turned quickly at a corner and stepping into a vacant lot stood behind a high board fence as a policeman strolled along the street. Into his head came the idea that he had killed Sue and that the blue-clad figure walking with heavy tread on the stone pavement was seeking him to take him back to where she lay white and lifeless. Again he stopped, before a little frame drugstore on a corner, and sitting down on the steps before it cursed God openly and defiantly like an angry boy defying his father. Some instinct led him to look at the sky through the tangle of telegraph wires overhead.

"Go on and do what you dare!" he cried. "I will not follow you now. I shall never try to find you after this."

Presently he began laughing at himself for the instinct that had led him to look at the sky and to shout out his defiance and, getting up, wandered on. In his wanderings he came to a railroad track where a freight train groaned and rattled over a crossing. When he came up to it he jumped upon an empty coal car, falling as he climbed, and cutting his face upon the sharp pieces of coal that lay scattered about the bottom of the car.

The train ground along slowly, stopping occasionally, the engine shrieking hysterically.

After a time he got out of the car and dropped to the ground. On all sides of him were marshes, the long rank marsh grasses rolling and tossing in the moonlight. When the train had passed he followed it, walking stumblingly along. As he walked, following the blinking lights at the end of the train, he thought of the scene in the hospital and of Sue lying dead for that-that ping livid and shapeless on the table under the lights.

Where the solid ground ran up to the tracks Sam sat down under a tree. Peace came over him. "This is the end of things," he thought, and was like a tired child comforted by its mother. He thought of the sweet-faced nurse who had walked with him that other time in the corridor of the hospital and who had wept because of his fears, and then of the night when he had felt the throat of his father between his fingers in the squalid little kitchen. He ran his hands along the ground. "Good old ground," he said. A sentence came into his mind followed by the figure of John Telfer striding, stick in hand, along a dusty road. "Here is spring come and time to plant out flowers in the grass," he said aloud. His face felt swollen and sore from the fall in the freight car and he lay down on the ground under a tree and slept.

When he woke it was morning and grey clouds were drifting across the sky. Within sight, down a road, a trolley car went past into the city. Before him, in the midst of the marsh, lay a low lake, and a raised walk, with boats tied to the posts on which it stood, ran down to the water. He went down the walk, bathed his bruised face in the water, and boarding a car went back into the city.

In the morning air a new thought took possession of him. The wind ran along a dusty road beside the car track, picking up little handfuls of dust and playfully throwing them about. He had a strained, eager feeling like some one listening for a faint call out of the distance.

"To be sure," he thought, "I know what it is, it is my wedding day. I am to marry Sue Rainey to-day."

At the house he found Grover and Colonel Tom standing in the breakfast room. Grover looked at his swollen, distorted face. His voice trembled.

"Poor devil!" he said. "You have had a night!"

Sam laughed and slapped Colonel Tom on the shoulder.

"We will have to begin getting ready," he said. "The wedding is at ten. Sue will be getting anxious."

Grover and Colonel Tom took him by the arm and began leading him up the stairs, Colonel Tom weeping like a woman.

"Silly old fool," thought Sam.

When, two weeks later, he again opened his eyes to consciousness Sue sat beside his bed in a reclining chair, her little thin white hand in his.

"Get the baby!" he cried, believing anything possible. "I want to see the baby!"

She laid her head down on the pillow.

"It was gone when you saw it," she said, and put an arm about his neck.

When the nurse came back she found them, their heads together upon the pillow, crying weakly like two tired children.

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