Marching Men

by Sherwood Anderson

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Book II: Chapter II

The street in which McGregor lived in Chicago was called Wycliff Place, after a family of that name that had once owned the land thereabout. The street was complete in its hideousness. Nothing more unlovely could be imagined. Given a free hand an indiscriminate lot of badly trained carpenters and bricklayers had builded houses beside the cobblestone road that touched the fantastic in their unsightliness and inconvenience.

The great west side of Chicago has hundreds of such streets and the coal mining town out of which McGregor had come was more inspiring as a place in which to live. As an unemployed young man, not much given to chance companionships, Beaut had spent many long evenings wandering alone on the hillsides above his home town. There was a kind of dreadful loveliness about the place at night. The long black valley with its dense shroud of smoke that rose and fell and formed itself into fantastic shapes in the moonlight, the poor little houses clinging to the hillside, the occasional cry of a woman being beaten by a drunken husband, the glare of the coke fires and the rumble of coal cars being pushed along the railroad tracks, all of these made a grim and rather inspiring impression on the young man's mind so that although he hated the mines and the miners he sometimes paused in his night wanderings and stood with his great shoulders lifted, breathing deeply and feeling things he had no words in him to express.

In Wycliff Place McGregor got no such reactions. Foul dust filled the air. All day the street rumbled and roared under the wheels of trucks and light hurrying delivery wagons. Soot from the factory chimneys was caught up by the wind and having been mixed with powdered horse manure from the roadway flew into the eyes and the nostrils of pedestrians. Always a babble of voices went on. At a corner saloon teamsters stopped to have their drinking cans filled with beer and stood about swearing and shouting. In the evening women and children went back and forth from their houses carrying beer in pitchers from the same saloon. Dogs howled and fought, drunken men reeled along the sidewalk and the women of the town appeared in their cheap finery and paraded before the idlers about the saloon door.

The woman who rented the room to McGregor boasted to him of Wycliff blood. It was that she told him that had brought her to Chicago from her home at Cairo, Illinois. "The place was left to me and not knowing what else to do with it I came here to live," she said. She explained to him that the Wycliffs had been people of note in the early history of Chicago. The huge old house with the cracked stone steps and the ROOMS TO RENT sign in the window had once been their family seat.

The history of this woman was characteristic of the miss-fire quality of much of American life. She was at bottom a wholesome creature who should have lived in a neat frame house in a village and tended a garden. On Sunday she should have dressed herself with care and gone off to sit in a country church with her hands crossed and her soul at rest.

The thought of owning a house in the city had however paralysed her brain. The house itself was worth a certain number of thousands of dollars and her mind could not rise above that fact, so her good broad face had become grimy with city dirt and her body weary from the endless toil of caring for roomers. On summer evenings she sat on the steps before her house clad in some bit of Wycliff finery taken from a trunk in the attic and when a lodger came out at the door she looked at him wistfully and said, "On such a night as this you could hear the whistles on the river steamers in Cairo."

McGregor lived in a small room at the end of a tall on the second floor of the Wycliff house. The windows of the room looked down into a dirty little court almost surrounded by brick warehouses. The room was furnished with a bed, a chair that vas always threatening to come to pieces and a desk with weak carved legs.

In this room sat McGregor night after night striving to realise his Coal Creek dream of training his mind and making himself of some account in the world. From seven-thirty until nine-thirty he sat at a desk in a night school. From ten until midnight he read in his room. He did not think of his surroundings, of the vast disorder of life about him, but tried with all his strength to bring something like order and purpose into his own mind and his own life.

In the little court under the window lay heaps of discarded newspaper tossed about by the wind. There in the heart of the city, walled in by the brick warehouse and half concealed under piles of chair legs cans and broken bottles, lay two logs in their time no doubt, a part of the grove that once lay about the house. The neighbourhood had passed so rapidly from country estate to homes and from homes to rented lodgings and huge brick warehouses that the marks of the lumberman's axe still showed in the butts of the logs.

McGregor seldom saw the little court except when its ugliness was refined and glossed over by darkness or by the moonlight. On hot evenings he laid down his book and leaning far out of the window rubbed his eyes and watched the discarded newspapers, worried by the whirlpools of wind in the court, run here and there, dashing against the warehouse walls and vainly trying to escape over the roof. The sight fascinated him and brought a thought into his mind. He began to think that the lives of most of the people about him were much like the dirty newspaper harried by adverse winds and surrounded by ugly walls of facts. The thought drove him from the window to renewed effort among his books. "I'll do something here anyway. I'll show them," he growled.

One living in the house with McGregor during those first years in the city might have thought his life stupid and commonplace but to him it did not seem so. It was for the miner's son a time of sudden and tremendous growth. Filled with confidence in the strength and quickness of his body he was beginning to have also confidence in the vigour and clearness of his brain. In the warehouse he went about with eyes and ears open, devising in his mind new methods of moving goods, watching the men at work, marking the shirkers, preparing to pounce upon the tall German's place as foreman.

The superintendent of the warehouse, not understanding the turn of the talk with McGregor on the sidewalk before the saloon, decided to like him and laughed when they met in the warehouse. The tall German maintained a policy of sullen silence and went to laborious lengths to avoid addressing him.

In his room at night McGregor began to read law, reading each page over and over and thinking of what he had read through the next day as he rolled and piled apple barrels in the passages in the warehouse.

McGregor had an aptitude and an appetite for facts. He read law as another and gentler nature might have read poetry or old legends. What he read at night he remembered and thought about during the day. He had no dream of the glories of the law. The fact that these rules laid down by men to govern their social organisation were the result of ages of striving toward perfection did not greatly interest him and he only thought of them as weapons with which to attack and defend in the battle of brains he meant presently to fight. His mind gloated in anticipation of the battle.


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