Marching Men

by Sherwood Anderson

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Book V: Chapter I

Margaret Ormsby was a natural product of her age and of American social life in our times. As an individual she was lovely. Although her father David Ormsby the plough king had come up to his position and his wealth out of obscurity and poverty and had known during his early life what it was to stand face to face with defeat, he had made it his business to see that his daughter had no such experience. The girl had been sent to Vassar, she had been taught to catch the fine distinction between clothes that are quietly and beautifully expensive and clothes that merely look expensive, she knew how to enter a room and how to leave a room and had also a strong well trained body and an active mind. Added to these things she had, without the least knowledge of life, a vigorous and rather high handed confidence in her ability to meet life.

During the years spent in the eastern college Margaret had made up her mind that whatever happened she was not going to let her life be dull or uninteresting. Once when a girl friend from Chicago came to the college to visit her the two went for a day out of doors and sat down upon a hillside to talk things over. "We women have been fools," Margaret had declared. "If Father and Mother think that I am going to come home and marry some stick of a man they are mistaken. I have learned to smoke cigarettes and have had my share of a bottle of wine. That may not mean anything to you. I do not think it amounts to much either but it expresses something. It fairly makes me ill when I think of how men have always patronised women. They want to keep evil things away from us--Bah! I am sick of that idea and a lot of the other girls here feel the same way. What right have they? I suppose some day some little whiffit of a business man will set himself up to take care of me. He had better not. I tell you there is a new kind of women growing up and I am going to be one of them. I am going to adventure, to taste life strongly and deeply. Father and Mother might as well make up their minds to that."

The excited girl had walked up and down before her companion, a mild looking young woman with blue eyes, and had raised her hands above her head as though to strike a blow. Her body was like the body of a fine young animal standing alert to meet an enemy and her eyes reflected the intoxication of her mood. "I want all of life," she cried; "I want the lust and the strength and the evil of it. I want to be one of the new women, the saviours of our sex."

Between David Ormsby and his daughter there was an unusual bond. Six foot three, blue eyed, broad shouldered, his presence had a strength and dignity which marked him out among men and the daughter sensed his strength. She was right in that. In his way the man was inspired. Under his eye the trivialities of plough-making had become the details of a fine art. In the factory he never lost the air of command which inspires confidence. Foremen running into the office filled with excitement because of a break in the machinery or an accident to a workman returned to do his bidding quietly and efficiently. Salesmen going from village to village to sell ploughs became under his influence filled with the zeal of missionaries carrying the gospel to the unenlightened. Stockholders of the plough company rushing to him with rumours of coming business disaster stayed to write checks for new assessments on their stock. He was a man who gave men back their faith in business and their faith in men.

To David plough-making was an end in life. Like other men of his type he had other interests but they were secondary. In secret he thought of himself as capable of a broader culture than most of his daily associates and without letting it interfere with his efficiency tried to keep in touch with the thoughts and movements of the world by reading. After the longest and hardest day in the office he sometimes spent half the night over a book in his room.

As Margaret Ormsby grew into womanhood she was a constant source of anxiety to her father. To him it seemed that she had passed from an awkward and rather jolly girlhood into a peculiarly determined new kind of womanhood over night. Her adventurous spirit worried him. One day he had sat in his office reading a letter announcing her homecoming. The letter seemed no more than a characteristic outburst from an impulsive girl who had but yesterday fallen asleep at evening in his arms. It confused him to think that an honest ploughmaker should have a letter from his little girl talking of the kind of living that he believed could only lead a woman to destruction.

And then the next day there sat beside him at his table a new and commanding figure demanding his attention. David got up from the table and hurried away to his room. He wanted to readjust his thoughts. On his desk was a photograph brought home by the daughter from school. He had the common experience of being told by the photograph what he had been trying to grasp. Instead of a wife and child there were two women in the house with him.

Margaret had come out of college a thing of beauty in face and figure. Her tall straight well-trained body, her coal-black hair, her soft brown eyes, the air she had of being prepared for life's challenge caught and held the attention of men. There was in the girl something of her father's bigness and not a little of the secret blind desires of her mother. To an attentive household on the night of her arrival she announced her intention of living her life fully and vividly. "I am going to know things I can not get from books," she said. "I am going to touch life at many corners, getting the taste of things in my mouth. You thought me a child when I wrote home saying that I wouldn't be cooped up in the house and married to a tenor in the church choir or to an empty-headed young business man but now you are going to see. I am going to pay the price if necessary, but I am going to live."

In Chicago Margaret set about the business of living as though nothing were needed but strength and energy. In a characteristic American way she tried to hustle life. When the men in her own set looked confused and shocked by the opinions she expressed she got out of her set and made the common mistake of supposing that those who do not work and who talk rather glibly of art and of freedom are by that token free men and artists.

Still she loved and respected her father. The strength in him made an appeal to the native strong-thing in her. To a young socialist writer who lived in the settlement house where she presently went to live and who sought her out to sit by her desk berating men of wealth and position she showed the quality of her ideals by pointing to David Ormsby. "My father, the leader of an industrial trust, is a better man than all of the noisy reformers that ever lived," she declared. "He makes ploughs anyway--makes them well--millions of them. He does not spend his time talking and running his ringers through his hair. He works and his work has lightened the labours of millions while the talkers sit thinking noisy thoughts and getting round-shouldered."

In truth Margaret Ormsby was puzzled. Had she been allowed by a common fellowship in living to be a real sister to all other women and to know their common heritage of defeat, had she like her father when he was a boy but known what it was to walk utterly broken and beaten in the face of men and then to rise again and again to battle with life she would have been splendid.

She did not know. To her mind any kind of defeat had in it a touch of something like immorality. When she saw all about her only a vast mob of defeated and confused human beings trying to make headway in the midst of a confused social organisation she was beside herself with impatience.

The distraught girl turned to her father and tried to get hold of the keynote of his life; "I want you to tell me things," she said, but the father not understanding only shook his head. It did not occur to him to talk to her as to a fine man friend and a kind of bantering half serious companionship sprang up between them. The ploughmaker was happy in the thought that the jolly girl he had known before his daughter went to college had come back to live with him.

After Margaret went to the settlement house she lunched with her father almost every day. The hour together in the midst of the din that filled their lives became for them both a treasured privilege. Day after day they sat for an hour in a fashionable down-town eating place renewing and strengthening their comradeship, laughing and talking amid the crowds, delightful in their intimacy. With each other they playfully took on the air of the two men of affairs, each in turn treating the work of the other as something to be passed over lightly. Secretly neither believed as he talked.

In her effort to get hold of and move the sordid human wrecks floating in and out of the door of the settlement house Margaret thought of her father at his desk directing the making of ploughs. "It is clean and important work," she thought. "He is a big and effective man."

At his desk in the office of the plough trust David thought of his daughter in the settlement house at the edge of the First Ward. "She is a white shining thing amid dirt and ugliness," he thought "Her whole life is like the life of her mother during the hours when she once lay bravely facing death for the sake of a new life."

On the day of her meeting with McGregor, father and daughter sat as usual in the restaurant. Men and women passed up and down the long carpeted aisles and looked at them admiringly. A waiter stood at Ormsby's shoulder anxious for the generous tip. Into the air that hung over them, the little secret atmosphere of comradeship they cherished so carefully, was thrust the sense of a new personality. Floating in Margaret's mind beside the quiet noble face of her father, with its stamp of ability and kindliness, was another face--the face of the man who had talked to her in the settlement house, not as Margaret Ormsby daughter of David Ormsby of the plough trust but as a woman who could serve his ends and whom he meant should serve. The vision in her mind haunted her and she listened indifferently to the talk of her father. She felt that the stern face of the young lawyer with its strong mouth and its air of command was as something impending and tried to get back the feeling of dislike she had felt when first he thrust himself in at the settlement house door. She succeeded only in recalling certain firm lines of purpose that offset and tempered the brutality of his face.

Sitting there in the restaurant opposite her father, where day after day they had tried so hard to build a real partnership in existence, Margaret suddenly burst into tears.

"I have met a man who has compelled me to do what I did not want to do," she explained to the astonished man and then smiled at him through the tears that glistened in her eyes.

Return to the Marching Men Summary Return to the Sherwood Anderson Library

It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.