Marching Men

by Sherwood Anderson

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Book V: Chapter II

In Chicago the Ormsbys lived in a large stone house in Drexel Boulevard. The house had a history. It was owned by a banker who was a large stockholder and one of the directors of the plough trust. Like all men who knew him well the banker admired and respected the ability and integrity of David Ormsby. When the ploughmaker came to the city from a town in Wisconsin to be the master of the plough trust he offered him the house to use.

The house had come to the banker from his father, a grim determined old money-making merchant of a past generation who had died hated by half Chicago after toiling sixteen hours daily for sixty years. In his old age the merchant had built the house to express the power wealth had given him. It had floors and woodwork cunningly wrought of expensive woods by workmen sent to Chicago by a firm in Brussels. In the long drawing room at the front of the house hung a chandelier that had cost the merchant ten thousand dollars. The stairway leading to the floor above was from the palace of a prince in Venice and had been bought for the merchant and brought over seas to the house in Chicago.

The banker who inherited the house did not want to live in it. Even before the death of his father and after his own unsuccessful marriage he lived at a down town club. In his old age the merchant, retired from business, lived in the house with another old man, an inventor. He could not rest although he had given up business with that end in view. Digging a trench in the lawn at the back of the house he with his friend spent his days trying to reduce the refuse of one of his factories to something having commercial value. Fires burned in the trench and at night the grim old man, hands covered with tar, sat in the house under the chandelier. After the death of the merchant the house stood empty, staring at passers-by in the street, its walks and paths overgrown with weeds and rank grass.

David Ormsby fitted into his house. Walking through the long halls or sitting smoking his cigar in an easy chair on the wide lawn he looked arrayed and environed. The house became a part of him like a well-made and intelligently worn suit of clothes. Into the drawing room under the ten thousand dollar chandelier he moved a billiard table and the click of ivory balls banished the churchliness of the place.

Up and down the stairway moved American girls, friends of Margaret, their skirts rustling and their voices running through the huge rooms. In the evening after dinner David played billiards. The careful calculation of the angles and the English interested him. Playing in the evening with Margaret or with a man friend the fatigue of the day passed and his honest voice and reverberating laugh brought a smile to the lips of people passing in the street. In the evening David brought his friends to sit in talk with him on the wide verandas. At times he went alone to his room at the top of the house and buried himself in books. On Saturday evenings he had a debauch and with a group of friends from town sat at a card table in the long parlour playing poker and drinking highballs.

Laura Ormsby, Margaret's mother, had never seemed a real part of the life about her. Even as a child the daughter had thought her hopelessly romantic. Life had treated her too well and from every one about her she expected qualities and reactions which in her own person she would not have tried to achieve.

David had already begun to rise when he married her, the slender brown-haired daughter of a village shoemaker, and even in those days the little plough company with its ownership scattered among the merchants and farmers of the vicinity had started under his hand to make progress in the state. People already spoke of its master as a coming man and of Laura as the wife of a coming man.

To Laura this was in some way unsatisfactory. Sitting at home and doing nothing she had still a passionate wish to be known as a character, an individual, a woman of action. On the street as she walked beside her husband, she beamed upon people but when the same people spoke, calling them a handsome couple, a flush rose to her cheeks and a flash of indignation ran through her brain.

Laura Ormsby lay awake in her bed at night thinking of her life. She had a world of fancies in which she at such times lived. In her dream world a thousand stirring adventures came to her. She imagined a letter received through the mail, telling of an intrigue in which David's name was coupled with that of another woman and lay abed quietly hugging the thought. She looked at the face of the sleeping David tenderly. "Poor hard-pressed boy," she muttered. "I shall be resigned and cheerful and lead him gently back to his old place in my heart."

In the morning after a night spent in this dream world Laura looked at David, so cool and efficient, and was irritated by his efficiency. When he playfully dropped his hand upon her shoulder she drew away and sitting opposite him at breakfast watched him reading the morning paper all unconscious of the rebel thoughts in her mind.

Once after she had moved to Chicago and after Margaret's return from college Laura had the faint suggestion of an adventure. Although it turned out tamely it lingered in her mind and in some way sweetened her thoughts.

She was alone on a sleeping car coming from New York. A young man sat in a seat opposite her and the two fell into talk. As she talked Laura imagined herself eloping with the young man and under her lashes looked sharply at his weak and pleasant face. She kept the talk alive as others in the car crawled away for the night behind the green swaying curtains.

With the young man Laura discussed ideas she had got from reading Ibsen and Shaw. She grew bold and daring in the advancing of opinions and tried to stir the young man to some overt speech or action that might arouse her indignation.

The young man did not understand the middle-aged woman who sat beside him and talked so boldly. He knew of but one prominent man named Shaw and that man had been governor of Iowa and later a member of the cabinet of President McKinley. It startled him to think that a prominent member of the Republican party should have such thoughts or express such opinions. He talked of fishing in Canada and of a comic opera he had seen in New York and at eleven o'clock yawned and disappeared behind the green curtains. As the young man lay in his berth he muttered to himself, "Now what did that woman want?" A thought came into his mind and he reached up to where his trousers swung in a little hammock above the window and looked to see that his watch and pocket-book were still there.

At home Laura Ormsby nursed the thought of the talk with the strange man on the train. In her mind he became something romantic and daring, a streak of light across what she was pleased to think of as her sombre life.

Sitting at dinner she talked of him describing his charms. "He had a wonderful mind and we sat late into the night talking," she said, watching the face of David.

When she had spoken Margaret looked up and said laughingly, "Have a heart Dad. Here is romance. Do not be blind to it. Mother is trying to scare you about an alleged love affair."

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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.