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   Chapter 21 No.21

Windy McPherson's Son By Sherwood Anderson Characters: 22488

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


One afternoon in early September Sam got on a westward-bound train intending to visit his sister on the farm near Caxton. For years he had heard nothing from Kate, but she had, he knew, two daughters, and he thought he would do something for them.

"I will put them on the Virginia farm and make a will leaving them my money," he thought. "Perhaps I shall be able to make them happy by setting them up in life and giving them beautiful clothes to wear."

At St. Louis he got off the train, thinking vaguely that he would see an attorney and make arrangements about the will, and for several days stayed about the Planters Hotel with a set of drinking companions he had picked up. One afternoon he began going from place to place drinking and gathering companions. An ugly light was in his eyes and he looked at men and women passing in the streets, feeling that he was in the midst of enemies, and that for him the peace, contentment, and good cheer that shone out of the eyes of others was beyond getting.

In the late afternoon, followed by a troop of roistering companions, he came out upon a street flanked with small, brick warehouses facing the river, where steamboats lay tied to floating docks.

"I want a boat to take me and my crowd for a cruise up and down the river," he announced, approaching the captain of one of the boats. "Take us up and down the river until we are tired of it. I will pay what it costs."

It was one of the days when drink would not take hold of him, and he went among his companions, buying drinks and thinking himself a fool to continue furnishing entertainment for the vile crew that sat about him on the deck of the boat. He began shouting and ordering them about.

"Sing louder," he commanded, tramping up and down and scowling at his companions.

A young man of the party who had a reputation as a dancer refused to perform when commanded. Springing forward Sam dragged him out on the deck before the shouting crowd.

"Now dance!" he growled, "or I will throw you into the river."

The young man danced furiously, and Sam marched up and down and looked at him and at the leering faces of the men and women lounging along the deck or shouting at the dancer. The liquor in him beginning to take effect, a queerly distorted version of his old passion for reproduction came to him and he raised his hand for silence.

"I want to see a woman who is a mother," he shouted. "I want to see a woman who has borne children."

A small woman with black hair and burning black eyes sprang from the group gathered about the dancer.

"I have borne children-three of them," she said, laughing up into his face. "I can bear more of them."

Sam looked at her stupidly and taking her by the arm led her to a chair on the deck. The crowd laughed.

"Belle is after his roll," whispered a short, fat man to his companion, a tall woman with blue eyes.

As the steamer, with its load of men and women drinking and singing songs, went up the river past bluffs covered with trees, the woman beside Sam pointed to a row of tiny houses at the top of the bluffs.

"My children are there. They are getting supper now," she said.

She began singing, laughing and waving a bottle to the others sitting along the deck. A youth with heavy features stood upon a chair and sang a song of the street, and, jumping to her feet, Sam's companion kept time with the bottle in her hand. Sam walked over to where the captain stood looking up the river.

"Turn back," he said, "I am tired of this crew."

On the way back down the river the black-eyed woman again sat beside Sam.

"We will go to my house," she said quietly, "just you and me. I will show you the kids."

Darkness was gathering over the river as the boat turned, and in the distance the lights of the city began blinking into view. The crowd had grown quiet, sleeping in chairs along the deck or gathering in small groups and talking in low tones. The black-haired woman began to tell Sam her story.

She was, she said, the wife of a plumber who had left her.

"I drove him crazy," she said, laughing quietly. "He wanted me to stay at home with him and the kids night after night. He used to follow me down town at night begging me to come home. When I wouldn't come he would go away with tears in his eyes. It made me furious. He wasn't a man. He would do anything I asked him to do. And then he ran away and left the kids on my hands."

In the city Sam, with the black-haired woman beside him, rode about in an open carriage, forgetting the children and going from place to place, eating and drinking. For an hour they sat in a box at the theatre, but grew tired of the performance and climbed again into the carriage.

"We will go to my house. I want to have you alone," said the woman.

They drove through street after street of workingmen's houses, where children ran laughing and playing under the lights, and two boys, their bare legs flashing in the lights from the lamps overhead, ran after them, holding to the back of the carriage.

The driver whipped the horses and looked back laughing. The woman got up and kneeling on the seat of the carriage laughed down into the faces of the running boys.

"Run, you little devils," she cried.

They held on, running furiously. Their legs twinkled and flashed under the lights.

"Give me a silver dollar," she said, turning to Sam, and when he had given it to her, threw it ringing upon the pavement under a street lamp. The two boys darted for it, shouting and waving their hands to her.

Swarms of huge flies and beetles circled under the street lamps, striking Sam and the woman in the face. One of them, a great black crawling thing, alighted on her breast, and taking it in her hand she crept forward and dropped it down the neck of the driver.

In spite of his hard drinking during the afternoon and evening, Sam's head was clear and a calm hatred of life burned in him. His mind ran back over the years he had passed since breaking his word to Sue, and a scorn of all effort burned in him.

"It is what a man gets who goes seeking Truth," he thought. "He comes to a fine end in life."

On all sides of him life ran playing on the pavement and leaping in the air. It circled and buzzed and sang above his head in the summer night there in the heart of the city. Even in the sullen man sitting in the carriage beside the black-haired woman it began to sing. The blood climbed through his body; an old half-dead longing, half hunger, half hope awoke in him, pulsating and insistent. He looked at the laughing, intoxicated woman beside him and a feeling of masculine approval shot through him. He began thinking of what she had said before the laughing crowd on the steamer.

"I have borne three children and can bear more."

His blood, stirred by the sight of the woman, awoke his sleeping brain, and he began again to quarrel with life and what life had offered him. He thought that always he would stubbornly refuse to accept the call of life unless he could have it on his own terms, unless he could command and direct it as he had commanded and directed the gun company.

"Else why am I here?" he muttered, looking away from the vacant, laughing face of the woman and at the broad, muscular back of the driver on the seat in front. "Why had I a brain and a dream and a hope? Why went I about seeking Truth?"

His mind ran on in the vein started by the sight of the circling beetles and the running boys. The woman put her head upon his shoulder and her black hair blew against his face. She struck wildly at the circling beetles, laughing like a child when she had caught one of them in her hand.

"Men like me are for some end. They are not to be played with as I have been," he muttered, clinging to the hand of the woman, who, also, he thought, was being tossed about by life.

Before a saloon, on a street where cars ran, the carriage stopped. Through the open front door Sam could see working-men standing before a bar drinking foaming glasses of beer, the hanging lamps above their heads throwing their black shadows upon the floor. A strong, stale smell came out at the door. The woman leaned over the side of the carriage and shouted. "O Will, come out here."

A man clad in a long white apron and with his shirt sleeves rolled to his elbows came from behind the bar and talked to her, and when they had started on she told Sam of her plan to sell her home and buy the place.

"Will you run it?" he asked.

"Sure," she said. "The kids can take care of themselves."

At the end of a little street of a half dozen neat cottages, they got out of the carriage and walked with uncertain steps along a sidewalk skirting a high bluff and overlooking the river. Below the houses a tangled mass of bushes and small trees lay black in the moonlight, and in the distance the grey body of the river showed faint and far away. The undergrowth was so thick that, looking down, one saw only the tops of the growth, with here and there a grey outcrop of rocks that glistened in the moonlight.

Up a flight of stone steps they climbed to the porch of one of the houses facing the river. The woman had stopped laughing and hung heavily on Sam's arm, her feet groping for the steps. They passed through a door and into a long, low-ceilinged room. An open stairway at the side of the room went up to the floor above, and through a curtained doorway at the end one looked into a small dining-room. A rag carpet lay on the floor and about a table, under a hanging lamp at the centre, sat three children. Sam looked at them closely. His head reeled and he clutched at the knob of the door. A boy of perhaps fourteen, with freckles on his face and on the backs of his hands and with reddish-brown hair and brown eyes, was reading aloud. Beside him a younger boy with black hair and black eyes, and with his knees doubled up on the chair in front of him so that his chin rested on them, sat listening. A tiny girl, pale and with yellow hair and dark circles under her eyes, slept in another chair, her head hanging uncomfortably to one side. She was, one would have said, seven, the black-haired boy ten.

The freckle-faced boy stopped reading and looked at the man and woman; the sleeping child stirred uneasily in her chair, and the black-haired boy straightened out his legs and looked over his shoulder.

"Hello, Mother," he said heartily.

The woman walked unsteadily to the curtained doorway leading into the dining-room and pulled aside the curtains.

"Come here, Joe," she said.

The freckle-faced boy arose and went toward her. She stood aside, supporting herself with one hand grasping the curtain. As he passed she struck him with her open hand on the back of the head, sending him reeling into the dining-room.

"Now you, Tom," she called to the black-haired boy. "I told you kids to wash the dishes after supper and to put Mary to bed. Here it is past ten and nothing done and you two reading books again."

The black-haired boy got up and started obediently toward her, but Sam walked rapidly past him and clutched the woman by the arm so that she winced and twisted in his grasp.

"You come with me," he said.

He wal

ked the woman across the room and up the stairs. She leaned heavily on his arm, laughing, and looking up into his face.

At the top of the stairway he stopped.

"We go in here," she said, pointing to a door.

He took her into the room. "You get to sleep," he said, and going out closed the door, leaving her sitting heavily on the edge of the bed.

Downstairs he found the two boys among the dishes in a tiny kitchen off the dining-room. The little girl still slept uneasily in the chair by the table, the hot lamp-light streaming down on her thin cheeks.

Sam stood in the kitchen door looking at the two boys, who looked back at him self-consciously.

"Which of you two puts Mary to bed?" he asked, and then, without waiting for an answer, turned to the taller of the two boys. "Let Tom do it," he said. "I will help you here."

Joe and Sam stood in the kitchen at work with the dishes; the boy, going busily about, showed the man where to put the clean dishes, and got him dry wiping towels. Sam's coat was off and his sleeves rolled up.

The work went on in half awkward silence and a storm went on within Sam's breast. When the boy Joe looked shyly up at him it was as though the lash of a whip had cut down across flesh, suddenly grown tender. Old memories began to stir within him and he remembered his own childhood, his mother at work among other people's soiled clothes, his father Windy coming home drunk, and the chill in his mother's heart and in his own. There was something men and women owed to childhood, not because it was childhood but because it was new life springing up. Aside from any question of fatherhood or motherhood there was a debt to be paid.

In the little house on the bluff there was silence. Outside the house there was darkness and darkness lay over Sam's spirit. The boy Joe went quickly about, putting the dishes Sam had wiped on the shelves. Somewhere on the river, far below the house, a steamboat whistled. The backs of the hands of the boy were covered with freckles. How quick and competent the hands were. Here was new life, as yet clean, unsoiled, unshaken by life. Sam was shamed by the trembling of his own hands. He had always wanted quickness and firmness within his own body, the health of the body that is a temple for the health of the spirit. He was an American and down deep within himself was the moral fervor that is American and that had become so strangely perverted in himself and others. As so often happened with him, when he was deeply stirred, an army of vagrant thoughts ran through his head. The thoughts had taken the place of the perpetual scheming and planning of his days as a man of affairs, but as yet all his thinking had brought him to nothing and had only left him more shaken and uncertain then ever.

The dishes were now all wiped and he went out of the kitchen glad to escape the shy silent presence of the boy. "Has life quite gone from me? Am I but a dead thing walking about?" he asked himself. The presence of the children had made him feel that he was himself but a child, a grown tired and shaken child. There was maturity and manhood somewhere abroad. Why could he not come to it? Why could it not come into him?

The boy Tom returned from having put his sister into bed and the two boys said good night to the strange man in their mother's house. Joe, the bolder of the two, stepped forward and offered his hand. Sam shook it solemnly and then the younger boy came forward.

"I'll be around here to-morrow I think," Sam said huskily.

The boys were gone, into the silence of the house, and Sam walked up and down in the little room. He was restless as though about to start on a new journey and half unconsciously began running his hands over his body wishing it strong and hard as when he tramped the road. As on the day when he had walked out of the Chicago Club bound on his hunt for Truth, he let his mind go so that it played freely over his past life, reviewing and analysing.

For hours he sat on the porch or walked up and down in the room where the lamp still burned brightly. Again the smoke from his pipe tasted good on his tongue and all the night air had a sweetness that brought back to him the walk beside the bridle path in Jackson Park when Sue had given him herself, and with herself a new impulse in life.

It was two o'clock when he lay down upon a couch in the living-room and blew out the light. He did not undress, but threw his shoes on the floor and lay looking at a wide path of moonlight that came through the open door. In the darkness it seemed that his mind worked more rapidly and that the events and motives of his restless years went streaming past like living things upon the floor.

Suddenly he sat up and listened. The voice of one of the boys, heavy with sleep, ran through the upper part of the house.

"Mother! O Mother!" called the sleepy voice, and Sam thought he could hear the little body moving restlessly in bed.

Silence followed. He sat upon the edge of the couch, waiting. It seemed to him that he was coming to something; that his brain that had for hours been working more and more rapidly was about to produce the thing for which he waited. He felt as he had felt that night as he waited in the corridor of the hospital.

In the morning the three children came down the stairs and finished dressing in the long room, the little girl coming last, carrying her shoes and stockings and rubbing her eyes with the back of her hand. A cool morning wind blew up from the river and through the open screened doors as he and Joe cooked breakfast, and later as the four of them sat at the table Sam tried to talk but did not make much progress. His tongue was heavy and the children seemed looking at him with strange questioning eyes. "Why are you here?" their eyes asked.

For a week Sam stayed in the city, coming daily to the house. With the children he talked a little, and in the evening, when the mother had gone away, the little girl came to him. He carried her to a chair on the porch outside and while the boys sat reading under the lamp inside she went to sleep in his arms. Her body was warm and the breath came softly and sweetly from between her lips. Sam looked down the bluffside and saw the country and the river far below, sweet in the moonlight. Tears came into his eyes. Was a new sweet purpose growing within him or were the tears but evidence of self pity? He wondered.

One night the black-haired woman again came home far gone in drink, and again Sam led her up the stairs to see her fall muttering and babbling upon the bed. Her companion, a little flashily dressed man with a beard, had run off at the sight of Sam standing in the living-room under the lamp. The two boys, to whom he had been reading, said nothing, looking self-consciously at the book upon the table and occasionally out of the corner of their eyes at their new friend. In a few minutes they too went up the stairs, and as on that first night, they put out their hands awkwardly.

Through the night Sam again sat in the darkness outside or lay awake on the couch. "I will make a new try, adopt a new purpose in life now," he said to himself.

When the children had gone to school the next morning, Sam took a car and went into the city, going first to a bank to have a large draft cashed. Then he spent many busy hours going from store to store and buying clothes, caps, soft underwear, suit cases, dresses, night clothes, and books. Last of all he bought a large dressed doll. All these things he had sent to his room at the hotel, leaving a man there to pack the trunks and suit cases, and get them to the station. A large, motherly-looking woman, an employé of the hotel, who passed through the hall, offered to help with the packing.

After another visit or two Sam got back upon the car and went again to the house. In his pockets he had several thousands of dollars in large bills. He had remembered the power of cash in deals he had made in the past.

"I will see what it will do here," he thought.

In the house Sam found the black-haired woman lying on a couch in the living-room. As he came in at the door she arose unsteadily and looked at him.

"There's a bottle in the cupboard in the kitchen," she said. "Get me a drink. Why do you hang about here?"

Sam brought the bottle and poured her a drink, pretending to drink with her by putting the bottle to his lips and throwing back his head.

"What was your husband like?" he asked.

"Who? Jack?" she said. "Oh, he was all right. He was stuck on me. He stood for anything until I brought men home here. Then he got crazy and went away." She looked at Sam and laughed.

"I didn't care much for him," she added. "He couldn't make money enough for a live woman."

Sam began talking of the saloon she intended buying.

"The children will be a bother, eh?" he said.

"I have an offer for the house," she said. "I wish I didn't have the kids. They are a nuisance."

"I have been figuring that out," Sam told her. "I know a woman in the East who would take them and raise them. She is wild about kids. I should like to do something to help you. I might take them to her."

"In the name of Heaven, man, lead them away," she laughed, and took another drink from the bottle.

Sam drew from his pocket a paper he had secured from a downtown attorney.

"Get a neighbour in here to witness this," he said. "The woman will want things regular. It releases you from all responsibility for the kids and puts it on her."

She looked at him suspiciously. "What's the graft? Who gets stuck for the fares down east?"

Sam laughed and going to the back door shouted to a man who sat under a tree back of the next house smoking a pipe.

"Sign here," he said, putting the paper before her. "Here is your neighbour to sign as witness. You do not get stuck for a cent."

The woman, half drunk, signed the paper, after a long doubtful look at Sam, and when she had signed and had taken another drink from the bottle lay down again on the couch.

"If any one wakes me up for the next six hours they will get killed," she declared. It was evident she knew little of what she had done, but at the moment Sam did not care. He was again a bargainer, ready to take an advantage. Vaguely he felt that he might be bargaining for an end in life, for purpose to come into his own life.

Sam went quietly down the stone steps and along the little street at the brow of the hill to the car tracks, and at noon was waiting in an automobile outside the door of the schoolhouse when the children came out.

He drove across the city to the Union Station, the three children accepting him and all he did without question. At the station they found the man from the hotel with the trunks and with three bright new suit cases. Sam went to the express office and putting several bills into an envelope sealed and sent it to the woman while the three children walked up and down in the train shed carrying the cases, aglow with the pride of them.

At two o'clock Sam, with the little girl in his arms and with one of the boys seated on either side of him, sat in a stateroom of a New York flyer-bound for Sue.

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