Marching Men

by Sherwood Anderson

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Book IV: Chapter V

The trial of Andrew Brown was both an opportunity and a test for McGregor. For a number of years he had lived a lonely life in Chicago. He had made no friends and his mind had not been confused by the endless babble of small talk on which most of us subsist. Evening after evening he had walked alone through the streets and had stood at the door of the State Street restaurant a solitary figure aloof from life. Now he was to be drawn into the maelstrom. In the past he had been let alone by life. The great blessing of isolation had been his and in his isolation he had dreamed a big dream. Now the quality of the dream and the strength of its hold upon him was to be tested.

McGregor was not to escape the influence of the life of his day. Deep human passion lay asleep in his big body. Before the time of his Marching Men he had yet to stand the most confusing of all the modern tests of men, the beauty of meaningless women and the noisy clamour of success that is equally meaningless.

On the day of his conversation with Andrew Brown in the old Cook County jail on Chicago's North Side we are therefore to think of McGregor as facing these tests. After the talk with Brown he walked along the street and came to the bridge that led over the river into the loop district. In his heart he knew that he was facing a fight and the thought thrilled him. With a new lift to his shoulders he walked over the bridge. He looked at the people and again let his heart be filled with contempt for them.

He wished that the fight for Brown were a fight with fists. Boarding a west side car he sat looking out through the car window at the passing crowd and imagined himself among them, striking right and left, gripping throats, demanding the truth that would save Brown and set himself up before the eyes of men.

When McGregor got to the Monroe Street millinery store it was evening and Edith was preparing to go out to the evening meal. He stood looking at her. In his voice rang a note of triumph. Out of his contempt for the men and women of the underworld came boastfulness. "They have given me a job they think I can't do," he said. "I'm to be Brown's counsel in the big murder case." He put his hands on her frail shoulders and pulled her to the light. "I'm going to knock them over and show them," he boasted. "They think they're going to hang Brown-- the oily snakes. Well they didn't count on me. Brown doesn't count on me. I'm going to show them." He laughed noisily in the empty shop.

At a little restaurant McGregor and Edith talked of the test he was to go through. As he talked she sat in silence and looked at his red hair.

"Find out if your man Brown has a sweetheart," she said, thinking of herself.

       *       *       *       *       *

America is the land of murders. Day after day in cities and towns and on lonely country roads violent death creeps upon men. Undisciplined and disorderly in their way of life the citizens can do nothing. After each murder they cry out for new laws which, when they are written into the books of laws, the very lawmaker himself breaks. Harried through life by clamouring demands, their days leave them no time for the quietude in which thoughts grow. After days of meaningless hurry in the city they jump upon trains or street cars and hurry through their favourite paper to the ball game, the comic pictures and the market reports.

And then something happens. The moment arrives. A murder that might have got a single column on an inner page of yesterday's paper today spreads its terrible details over everything.

Through the streets hurry the restless scurrying newsboys, stirring the crowds with their cries. The men who have passed impatiently the tales of a city's shame snatch the papers and read eagerly and exhaustively the story of a crime.

And into the midst of such a maelstrom of rumours, hideous impossible stories and well-laid plans to defeat the truth, McGregor hurled himself. Day after day he wandered through the vice district south of Van Buren Street. Prostitutes, pimps, thieves and saloon hangers-on looked at him and smiled knowingly. As the days passed and he made no progress he became desperate. One day an idea came to him. "I'll go to the good looking woman at the settlement house," he told himself. "She won't know who killed the boy but she can find out. I'll make her find out."

       *       *       *       *       *

In Margaret Ormsby McGregor was to know what was to him a new kind of womanhood, something sure, reliant, hedged about and prepared as a good soldier is prepared, to have the best of it in the struggle for existence. Something he had not known was yet to make its cry to the man.

Margaret Ormsby like McGregor himself had not been defeated by life. She was the daughter of David Ormsby, head of the great plough trust with headquarters in Chicago, a man who because of a certain fine assurance in his attitude toward life had been called "Ormsby the Prince" by his associates. Her mother Laura Ormsby was small nervous and intense.

With a self-conscious abandonment, lacking just a shade of utter security, Margaret Ormsby, beautiful in body and beautifully clad, went here and there among the outcasts of the First Ward. She like all women was waiting for an opportunity of which she did not talk even to herself. She was something for the single-minded and primitive McGregor to approach with caution.

Hurrying along a narrow street lined with cheap saloons McGregor went in at the door of the settlement house and sat in a chair at a desk facing Margaret Ormsby. He knew something of her work in the First Ward and that she was beautiful and self-possessed. He was determined that she should help him. Sitting in the chair and looking at her across the flat-top desk he choked back into her throat the terse sentences with which she was wont to greet visitors.

"It is all very well for you to sit there dressed up and telling me what women in your position can do and can't do," he said, "but I've come here to tell you what you will do if you are of the kind that want to be useful."

The speech of McGregor was a challenge which Margaret, the modern daughter of one of our modern great men, could not well let pass. Had she not brazened out her timidity to go calmly among prostitutes and sordid muttering drunkards, serene in her consciousness of business- like purpose? "What is it you want?" she asked sharply.

"You have just two things that will help me," said McGregor; "your beauty and your virginity. These things are a kind of magnet, drawing the women of the street to you. I know. I've heard them talk.

"There are women who come in here who know who it was killed that boy in the passageway and why it was done," McGregor went on. "You're a fetish with these women. They are children and they come in here to look at you as children peep around curtains at guests sitting in the parlour of their houses.

"Well I want you to call these children into the room and let them tell you family secrets. The whole ward here knows the story of that killing. The air is filled with it. The men and women keep trying to tell me, but they're afraid. The police have them scared and they half-tell me and then run away like frightened animals.

"I want them to tell you. You don't count with the police down here. They think you're too beautiful and too good to touch the real life of these people. None of them--the bosses or the police--are watching you. I'll keep kicking up dust and you get the information I want. You can do the job if you're any good."

After McGregor's speech the woman sat in silence and looked at him. For the first time she had met a man who overwhelmed her and was in no way diverted by her beauty nor her self--possession. A hot wave, half anger, half admiration, swept over her.

McGregor stared at the woman and waited. "I've got to have facts," he said. "Give me the story and the names of those who know the story and I'll make them tell. I have some facts now--got them by bullying a girl and by choking a bartender in an alley. Now I want you in your way to put me in the way of getting more facts. You make the women talk and tell you and then you tell me."

When McGregor had gone Margaret Ormsby got up from her desk in the settlement house and walked across the city toward her father's office. She was startled and frightened. In a moment and by the speech and manner of this brutal young lawyer she had been made to realise that she was but a child in the hands of the forces that played about her in the First Ward. Her self--possession was shaken. "If they are children--these women of the town--then I am a child, a child swimming with them in a sea of hate and ugliness."

A new thought came into her mind. "But he is no child--that McGregor. He is a child of nothing. He stands on a rock unshaken."

She tried to become indignant because of the blunt frankness of the man's speech. "He talked to me as he would have talked to a woman of the streets," she thought. "He was not afraid to assume that at bottom we are alike, just playthings in the hands of the man who dares."

In the street she stopped and looked about. Her body trembled and she realised that the forces about her had become living things ready to pounce upon her. "Anyway, I will do what I can. I will help him. I will have to do that," she whispered to herself.


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