Marching Men

by Sherwood Anderson

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Book II: Chapter III

And then a new element asserted itself in the life of McGregor. One of the hundreds of disintegrating forces that attack strong natures, striving to scatter their force in the back currents of life, attacked him. His big body began to feel with enervating persistency the call of sex.

In the house in Wycliff Place McGregor passed as a mystery. By keeping silence he won a reputation for wisdom. The clerks in the hall bedrooms thought him a scientist. The woman from Cairo thought him a theological student. Down the hall a pretty girl with large black eyes who worked in a department store down town dreamed of him at night. When in the evening he banged the door to his room and strode down the hallway going to the night school she sat in a chair by the open door of her room. As he passed she raised her eyes and looked at him boldly. When he returned she was again by the door and again she looked boldly at him.

In his room, after the meetings with the black-eyed girl McGregor found difficulty in keeping his mind on the reading. He felt as he had felt with the pale girl on the hillside beyond Coal Creek. With her as with the pale girl he felt the need of defending himself. He began to make it a practice to hurry along past her door.

The girl in the hall bedroom thought constantly of McGregor. When he had gone to night school another young man of the house who wore a Panama hat came from the floor above and, putting his hands on the door frames of her room, stood looking at her and talking. In his lips he held a cigarette, which when he talked hung limply from the corner of his mouth.

This young man and the black-eyed girl kept up a continuous stream of comments on the doings of red-haired McGregor. Begun by the young man, who hated him because of his silence, the subject was kept alive by the girl who wanted to talk of McGregor.

On Saturday nights the young man and the girl sometimes went together to the theatre. One night in the summer when they had returned to the front of the house the girl stopped. "Let's see what the big red-head is doing," she said.

Going around the block they stole in the darkness down an alleyway and stood in the little dirty court looking up at McGregor who, with his feet in the window and a lamp burning at his shoulder, sat in his room reading.

When they returned to the front of the house the black-eyed girl kissed the young man, closing her eyes and thinking of McGregor. In her room later she lay abed dreaming. She imagined herself assaulted by the young man who had crept into her room and that McGregor had come roaring down the hall to snatch him away and fling him outside the door.

At the end of the hallway near the stairway leading to the street lived a barber. He had deserted a wife and four children in a town in Ohio and to prevent recognition had grown a black beard. Between this man and McGregor a companionship had sprung up and they went together on Sunday mornings to walk in the park. The black bearded man called himself Frank Turner.

Frank Turner had a passion. Through the evenings and on Sunday afternoons he sat in his room making violins. He worked with a knife, glue, pieces of glass and sand paper and spent his earnings for ingredients for the making of varnishes. When he got hold of a piece of wood that seemed an answer to his prayers he took it to McGregor's room and holding it up to the light talked of what he would do with it. Sometimes he brought a violin and sitting in the open window tested the quality of its tone. One evening he took an hour of McGregor's time to talk of the varnish of Cremona and to read to him from a worn little book concerning the old Italian masters of violin making.

       *       *       *       *       *

On a bench in the park sat Turner, the maker of violins, the man who dreamed of the rediscovery of the varnish of Cremona, talking to McGregor, son of the Pennsylvania miner.

It was a Sunday afternoon and the park was vibrant with life. All day the street cars had been unloading Chicagoans at the park entrance. They came in pairs and in parties, young men with their sweethearts and fathers with families at their heels. Now at the end of the day they continued to come, a steady stream of humanity flowing along the gravel walk past the bench where the two men sat in talk. Through the stream and crossing it went another stream homeward bound. Babies cried. Fathers called to the children at play on the grass. Cars coming to the park filled went away filled.

McGregor looked about him and thought of himself and of the restless moving people. In him there was none of that vague fear of the multitude common to many solitary souls. His contempt of men and of the lives lived by men reinforced his native boldness. The odd little rounding of the shoulders of even the athletic young men made him straighten with pride his own shoulders and fat and lean, tall and short, he thought of all men as counters in some vast games at which he was presently to be a master player.

The passion for form, that strange intuitive power that many men have felt and none but the masters of human life have understood, had begun to awaken in him. Already he had begun to sense out the fact that for him law was but an incident in some vast design and he was altogether untouched by the desire for getting on in the world, by the greedy little snatching at trifles that was the whole purpose of the lives of so many of the people about him. When somewhere in the park a band began to play he nodded his head up and down and ran his hand nervously up and down the legs of his trousers. Into his mind came the desire to boast to the barber, telling of the things he meant to do in the world, but he put the desire away. Instead he sat silently blinking his eyes and wondering at the persistent air of ineffectiveness in the people who passed. When a band went by playing march music and followed by some fifty men wearing white plumes in their hats and walking with self-conscious awkwardness, he was startled. Among the people he thought there was a change. Something like a running shadow passed over them. The babbling of voices ceased and like himself the people began to nod their heads. A thought, gigantic in its simplicity, began to come into his mind but was wiped out immediately by his impatience with the marchers. A madness to spring up and run among them knocking them about and making them march with the power that comes of abandonment almost lifted him from the bench. His mouth twitched and his fingers ached for action.

       *       *       *       *       *

In and out among the trees and on the green spaces moved the people. Along the shores of a pond sat men and women eating the evening meal from baskets or from white cloths spread on the grass. They laughed and shouted at each other and at the children, calling them back from the gravel driveways filled with moving carriages. Beaut saw a girl throw an egg shell and hit a young fellow between the eyes, and then run laughing away along the shore of the pond. Under a tree a woman nursed a babe, covering her breasts with a shawl so that just the black head of the babe showed. Its tiny hand clutched at the mouth of the woman. In an open space in the shadow of a building young men played baseball, the shouts of the spectators rising above the murmur of the voices of people on the gravel walk.

A thought came into McGregor's mind that he wanted to discuss with the older man. He was moved by the sight of women about and shook himself like one awakening from a dream. Then he began looking at the ground and kicking up the gravel with his foot. "Look here," he said, turning to the barber, "what is a man to do about women, about getting what he wants from the women?"

The barber seemed to understand. "It has come to that then?" he asked and looked quickly up. He lighted a pipe and sat looking at the people. It was then he told McGregor of the wife and four children in the Ohio town, describing the little brick house and the garden and the coop for chickens at the back like one who lingers over a place dear to his fancy. Something old and weary was in his voice as he finished.

"It wasn't a matter for me to decide," he said. "I came away because I couldn't do anything else. I'm not excusing myself, I'm just telling you. There was something messy and disorderly about it all, about my life with her and with them. I couldn't stand it. I felt myself being submerged by something. I wanted to be orderly and to work, you see. I couldn't let violin making alone. Lord, how I tried--tried bluffing myself about it--calling it a fad."

The barber looked nervously at McGregor to reassure himself of his interest. "I owned a shop on the main street of our town. Back of it was a blacksmith shop. During the day I stood by the chair in my shop talking to men being shaved about the love of women and a man's duty to his family. Summer afternoons I went and sat on a keg in the blacksmith shop and talked of the same thing with the smith but all that did me no good.

"When I let myself go I dreamed not of my duty to my family but of working undisturbed as I do now here in the city in my room in the evenings and on Sundays."

A sharpness came into the voice of the speaker. He turned to McGregor and talked vigorously like one making a defence. "My woman was a good enough sort," he said. "I suppose loving is an art like writing a book or drawing pictures or making violins. People try to do it and don't succeed. In the end we threw the job up and just lived together like most people do. Our lives got mussy and meaningless. That's how it was.

"Before she married me my wife had been a stenographer in a factory that made tin cans. She liked that work. She could make her fingers dance along the keys. When she read a book at home she didn't think the writer amounted to much if he made mistakes about punctuation. Her boss was so proud of her that he would brag of her work to visitors and sometimes would go off fishing leaving the running of the business in her hands.

"I don't know why she married me. She was happier there and she is happier back there now. We got to walking together on Sunday evenings and standing under the trees on side streets, kissing and looking at each other. We talked about a lot of things. We seemed to need each other. Then we got married and started living together.

"It didn't work out. After we had been married a few years things changed. I don't know why. I thought I was the same as I had been and I think she was. We used to sit around quarrelling about it, each blaming the other. Anyway we didn't get along.

"We would sit on the little front porch of our house in the evening, she bragging of the work she had done in the can factory and I dreaming of quietude and a chance to work on the violins. I thought I knew a way to increase the quality and beauty of tone and I had that idea about varnish I have talked to you about. I even dreamed of doing things those old fellows of Cremona didn't do.

"When she had been talking of her work in the office for maybe a half hour she would look up and find that I hadn't been listening. We would quarrel. We even quarrelled before the children after they came. Once she said that she didn't see how it would matter if no violins had ever been made and that night I dreamed of choking her in bed. I woke up and lay there beside her thinking of it with something like real satisfaction in just the thought that one long hard grip of my fingers would get her out of my way for good.

"We didn't always feel that way. Every little while a change would come over both of us and we would begin to take an interest in each other. I would be proud of the work she had done in the factory and would brag of it to men coming into the shop. In the evening she would be sympathetic about the violins and put the baby to bed to let me alone at my work in the kitchen.

"Then we would begin to sit in the darkness in the house and hold each other's hands. We would forgive things that had been said and play a sort of game, chasing each other about the room in the darkness and knocking against the chairs and laughing. Then we would begin to look at each other and kiss. Presently there would be another baby."

The barber threw up his hands with a gesture of impatience. His voice lost its softer, reminiscent quality. "Such times didn't last," he said. "On the whole it was no life to live. I came away. The children are in a state institution and she has gone back to her work in the office. The town hates me. They have made a heroine of her. I'm here talking to you with these whiskers on my face so that people from my town wouldn't know me if they came along. I'm a barber and I would shave them off fast enough if it wasn't for that."

A woman walking past looked back at McGregor. In her eyes lurked an invitation. It reminded him of something in the eyes of the pale daughter of the undertaker of Coal Creek. An uneasy tremor ran through him. "What do you do about women now?" he asked.

The voice of the smaller man arose harsh and excited in the evening air. "I get the feeling taken out of me as a man would have a tooth fixed," he said. "I pay money for the service and keep my mind on what I want to do. There are plenty of women for that, women who are good for that only. When I first came here I used to wander about at night, wanting to go to my room and work but with my mind and my will paralysed by that feeling. I don't do that now and I won't again. What I do many men do--good men--men who do good work. What's the use thinking about it when you only run against a stone wall and get hurt?"

The black bearded man arose, thrust his hands into his trousers pockets and looked about him. Then he sat down again. He seemed to be filled with suppressed excitement. "There is a big hidden something going on in modern life," he said, talking rapidly and excitedly. "It used to touch only the men higher up, now it reaches down to men like me--barbers and workingmen. Men know about it but don't talk and don't dare think. Their women have changed. Women used to be willing to do anything for men, just be slaves to them. The best men don't ask that now and don't want that."

He jumped to his feet and stood over McGregor. "Men don't understand what's going on and don't care," he said. "They are too busy getting things done or going to ball games or quarrelling about politics.

"And what do they know about it if they are fools enough to think? They get thrown into false notions. They see about them a lot of fine purposeful women maybe caring for their children and they blame themselves for their vices and are ashamed. Then they turn to the other women anyway, shutting their eyes and going ahead. They pay for what they want as they would pay for a dinner, thinking no more of the women who serve them than they do of the waitresses who serve them in the restaurants. They refuse to think of the new kind of woman that is growing up. They know that if they get sentimental about her they'll get into trouble or get new tests put to them, be disturbed you see, and spoil their work or their peace of mind. They don't want to get into trouble or be disturbed. They want to get a better job or enjoy a ball game or build a bridge or write a book. They think that a man who gets sentimental about any woman is a fool and of course he is."

"Do you mean that all of them do that?" asked McGregor. He wasn't upset by what had been said. It struck him as being true. For himself he was afraid of women. It seemed to him that a road was being built by his companion along which he might travel with safety. He wanted the man to go on talking. Into his brain flashed the thought that if he had the thing to do over there would have been a different ending to the afternoon spent with the pale girl on the hillside.

The barber sat down upon the bench. The flush out of his cheeks. "Well I have done pretty well myself," he said, "but then you know I make violins and don't think of women. I've been in Chicago two years and I've spent just eleven dollars. I would like to know what the average man spends. I wish some fellow would get the facts and publish them. It would make people sit up. There must be millions spent here every year."

"You see I'm not very strong and I stand all day on my feet in the barber shop." He looked at McGregor and laughed. "The black-eyed girl in the hall is after you," he said. "You'd better look out. You let her alone. Stick to your law books. You are not like me. You are big and red and strong. Eleven dollars won't pay your way here in Chicago for no two years."

McGregor looked again at the people moving toward the park entrance in the gathering darkness. He thought it wonderful that a brain could think a thing out so clearly and words express thoughts so lucidly. His eagerness to follow the passing girls with his eyes was gone. He was interested in the older man's viewpoint. "And what about children?" he asked.

The older man sat sideways on the bench. There was a troubled look in his eyes and a suppressed eager quality in his voice. "I'm going to tell you about that," he said. "I don't want to keep anything back.

"Look here!" he demanded, sliding along the bench toward McGregor and emphasising his points by slapping one hand down upon the other. "Ain't all children my children?" He paused, trying to gather his scattered thoughts into words. When McGregor started to speak he put his hand up as though to ward off a new thought or another question. "I'm not trying to dodge," he said. "I'm trying to get thoughts that have been in my head day after day in shape to tell. I haven't tried to express them before. I know men and women cling to their children. It's the only thing they have left of the dream they had before they married. I felt that way. It held me for a long time. It would be holding me now only that the violins pulled so hard at me."

He threw up his hand impatiently. "You see I had to find an answer. I couldn't think of being a skunk--running away--and I couldn't stay. I wasn't intended to stay. Some men are intended to work and take care of children and serve women perhaps but others have to keep trying for a vague something all their lives--like me trying for a tone on a violin. If they don't get it it doesn't matter, they have to keep trying.

"My wife used to say I'd get tired of it. No woman ever really understands a man caring for anything except herself. I knocked that out of her."

The little man looked up at McGregor. "Do you think I'm a skunk?" he asked.

McGregor looked at him gravely. "I don't know," he said. "Go on and tell me about the children."

"I said they were the last things to cling to. They are. We used to have religion. But that's pretty well gone now--the old kind. Now men think about children, I mean a certain kind of men--the ones that have work they want to get on with. Children and work are the only things that kind care about. If they have a sentiment about women it's only about their own--the one they have in the house with them. They want to keep that one finer than they are themselves. So they work the other feeling out on the paid women.

"Women fuss about men loving children. Much they care. It's only a plan for demanding adulation for themselves that they don't earn. Once, when I first came to the city, I took a place as servant in a wealthy family. I wanted to stay under cover until my beard grew. Women used to come there to receptions and to meetings in the afternoon to talk about reforms they were interested in----Bah! They work and scheme trying to get at men. They are at it all their lives, flattering, diverting us, giving us false ideas, pretending to be weak and uncertain when they are strong and determined. They have no mercy. They wage war on us trying to make us slaves. They want to take us captive home to their houses as Caesar took captives home to Rome.

"You look here!" He jumped to his feet again and shook his fingers at McGregor. "You just try something. You try being open and frank and square with a woman--any woman--as you would with a man. Let her live her own life and ask her to let you live yours. You try it. She won't. She will die first."

He sat down again upon the bench and shook his head back and forth. "Lord how I wish I could talk!" he said. "I'm making a muddle of this and I wanted to tell you. Oh, how I wanted to tell you! It's part of my idea that a man should tell a boy all he knows. We've got to quit lying to them."

McGregor looked at the ground. He was profoundly and deeply moved and interested as he had never before been moved by anything but hate.

Two women coming along the gravel walk stopped under a tree and looked back. The barber smiled and raised his hat. When they smiled back at him he rose and started toward them. "Come on boy," he whispered behind his hand to McGregor. "Let's get them."

When McGregor looked up the scene before his eyes infuriated him. The smiling barber with his hat in his hand, the two women waiting under the tree, the look of half-guilty innocence on the faces of all of them, stirred a blind fury in his brain. He sprang forward, clutching the shoulder of Turner with his hand. Whirling him about he threw him to his hands and knees. "Get out of here you females!" he roared at the women who ran off in terror down the walk.

The barber sat again upon the bench beside McGregor. He rubbed his hands together to brush the bits of gravel out of the flesh. "What's got wrong with you?" he asked.

McGregor hesitated. He wondered how he should tell what was in his mind. "Everything in its place," he said finally. "I wanted to go on with our talk."

Lights flashed out of the darkness of the park. The two men sat on the bench thinking each his own thoughts.

"I want to take some work out of the clamps to-night," the barber said, looking at his watch. Together the two men walked along the street. "Look here," said McGregor. "I didn't mean to hurt you. Those two women that came up and interfered with what we were working out made me furious."

"Women always interfere," said the barber. "They raise hell with men." His mind ran out and began to play with the world-old problem of the sexes. "If a lot of women fall in the fight with us men and become our slaves--serving us as the paid women do--need they fuss about it? Let them be game and try to help work it out as men have been game and have worked and thought through ages of perplexity and defeat."

The barber stopped on the street corner to fill and light his pipe. "Women can change everything when they want to," he said, looking at McGregor and letting the match burn out in his fingers. "They can have motherhood pensions and room to work out their own problem in the world or anything else that they really want. They can stand up face to face with men. They don't want to. They want to enslave us with their faces and their bodies. They want to carry on the old, old weary fight." He tapped McGregor on the arm. "If a few of us--wanting with all our might to get something done--beat them at their own game, don't we deserve the victory?" he asked.

"But sometimes I think I would like a woman to live with, you know, just to sit and talk with me," said McGregor.

The barber laughed. Puffing at his pipe he walked down the street. "To be sure! To be sure!" he said. "I would. Any man would. I like to sit in the room for a spell in the evening talking to you but I would hate to give up violin making and be bound all my life to serve you and your purposes just the same."

In the hallway of their own house the barber spoke to McGregor as he looked down the hallway to where the door of the black eyed girl's room had just crept open. "You let women alone," he said; "when you feel you can't stay away from them any longer you come and talk it over with me."

McGregor nodded and went along the hallway to his own room. In the darkness he stood by the window and looked down into the court. The feeling of hidden power, the ability to rise above the mess into which modern life had sunk that had come to him in the park, returned and he walked nervously about. When finally he sat down upon a chair and leaning forward put his head in his hands he felt like one who has started on a long journey through a strange and dangerous country and who has unexpectedly come upon a friend going the same way.


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