Marching Men

by Sherwood Anderson

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Book V: Chapter IV

During the days since she had seen McGregor Margaret had thought of him almost constantly. She weighed and balanced her own inclinations and decided that if the opportunity came she would marry the man whose force and courage had so appealed to her. She was half disappointed that the opposition she had seen in her father's face when she had told him of McGregor and had betrayed herself by her tears did not become more active. She wanted to fight, to defend the man she had secretly chosen. When nothing was said of the matter she went to her mother and tried to explain. "We will have him here," the mother said quickly. "I am giving a reception next week. I will make him the chief figure. Let me have his name and address and I will attend to the matter."

Laura arose and went into the house. A shrewd gleam came into her eyes. "He will act like a fool before our people," she told herself. "He is a brute and will be made to look like a brute." She could not restrain her impatience and sought out David. "He is a man to fear," she said; "he would stop at nothing. You must think of some way to put an end to Margaret's interest in him. Do you know of a better plan than to have him here where he will look the fool?"

David took the cigar from his lips. He felt annoyed and irritated that an affair concerning Margaret had been brought forward for discussion. In his heart he also feared McGregor. "Let it alone," he said sharply. "She is a woman grown and has more judgment and good sense than any other woman I know." He got up and threw the cigar over the veranda into the grass. "Women are not understandable," he half shouted. "They do inexplicable things, have inexplicable fancies. Why do they not go forward along straight lines like a sane man? I years ago gave up understanding you and now I am being compelled to give up understanding Margaret."

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At Mrs. Ormsby's reception McGregor appeared arrayed in the black suit he had purchased for his mother's funeral. His flaming red hair and rude countenance arrested the attention of all. About him on all sides crackled talk and laughter. As Margaret had been alarmed and ill at ease in the crowded court room where a fight for life went on, so he among these people who went about uttering little broken sentences and laughing foolishly at nothing, felt depressed and uncertain. In the midst of the company he occupied much the same position as a new and ferocious animal safely caught and now on caged exhibition. They thought it clever of Mrs. Ormsby to have him and he was, in not quite the accepted sense, the lion of the evening. The rumour that he would be there had induced more than one woman to cut other engagements and come to where she could take the hand of and talk with this hero of the newspapers, and the men shaking his hand, looked at him sharply and wondered what power and what cunning lay in him.

In the newspapers after the murder trial a cry had sprung up about the person of McGregor. Fearing to print in full the substance of his speech on vice, its ownership and its significance, they had filled their columns with talk of the man. The huge Scotch lawyer of the Tenderloin was proclaimed as something new and startling in the grey mass of the city's population. Then as in the brave days that followed the man caught irresistibly the imagination of writing men, himself dumb in written or spoken words except in the heat of an inspired outburst when he expressed perfectly that pure brute force, the lust for which sleeps in the souls of artists.

Unlike the men the beautifully gowned women at the reception had no fear of McGregor. They saw in him something to be tamed and conquered and they gathered in groups to engage him in talk and return the inquiring stare in his eyes. They thought that with such an unconquered soul about, life might take on new fervour and interest. Like the women who sat playing with toothpicks in O'Toole's restaurant, more than one of the women at Mrs. Ormsby's reception had a half unconscious wish that such a man might be her lover.

One after another Margaret brought forward the men and women of her world to couple their names with McGregor's and try to establish him in the atmosphere of assurance and ease that pervaded the house and the people. He stood by the wall bowing and staring boldly about and thought that the confusion and distraction of mind that had followed his first visit to Margaret at the settlement house was being increased immeasurably with every passing moment. He looked at the glittering chandelier on the ceiling and at the people moving about-- the men at ease, comfortable--the women with wonderfully delicate expressive hands and with their round white necks and shoulders showing above their gowns and a feeling of utter helplessness pervaded him. Never before had he been in a company so feminine. He thought of the beautiful women about him, seeing them in his direct crude and forceful way merely as females at work among males, carrying forward some purpose. "With all the softly suggestive sensuality of their dress and their persons they must in some way have sapped the strength and the purpose of these men who move among them so indifferently," he thought. Within himself he knew of nothing to set up as a defence against what he believed such beauty must become to the man who lived with it. Its power he thought must be something monumental and he looked with admiration at the quiet face of Margaret's father, moving among his guests.

McGregor went out of the house and stood in the half darkness on the veranda. When Mrs. Ormsby and Margaret followed he looked at the older woman and sensed her antagonism. The old love of battle swept in on him and he turned and stood in silence looking at her. "The fine lady," he thought, "is no better than the women of the First Ward. She has an idea I will surrender without a fight."

Out of his mind went the fear of the assurance and stability of Margaret's people that had almost overcome him in the house. The woman who had all her life thought of herself as one waiting only the opportunity to appear as a commanding figure in affairs made by her presence a failure of the effort to submerge McGregor.

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On the veranda stood the three people. McGregor the silent became the talkative. Seized with one of the inspirations that were a part of his nature he threw talk about, sparring and returning thrust for thrust with Mrs. Ormsby. When he thought that the time had come for him to get at the thing that was in his mind he went into the house and presently came out carrying his hat. The quality of harshness that crept into his voice when he was excited or determined startled Laura Ormsby. Looking down at her, he said, "I am going to take your daughter for a walk in the street. I want to talk with her."

Laura hesitated and smiled uncertainly. She determined to speak out, to be like the man crude and direct. When she had her mind fixed and ready Margaret and McGregor were already half way down the gravel walk to the gate and the opportunity to distinguish herself had passed.

       *       *       *       *       *

McGregor walked beside Margaret, absorbed in thoughts of her. "I am engaged in a work here," he said, waving his hand vaguely toward the city. "It is a big work and it takes a lot out of me. I have not come to see you, because I've been uncertain. I've been afraid you would overcome me and drive thoughts of the work out of my head."

By the iron gate at the end of the gravel walk they turned and faced each other. McGregor leaned against the brick wall and looked at her. "I want you to marry me," he said. "I think of you constantly. Thinking of you I can only half do my work. I get to thinking that another man may come and take you and I waste hour after hour being afraid."

She put a trembling hand upon his arm and he thinking to check an attempt at an answer before he had finished, hurried on.

"There are things to be said and understood between us before I can come to you as a suitor. I did not think I should feel toward a woman as I feel toward you and I have certain adjustments to make. I thought I could get along without your kind of women. I thought you were not for me--with the work I have thought out to do in the world. If you will not marry me I'll be glad to know now so that I can get my mind straightened out."

Margaret raised her hand and laid it on his shoulder. The act was a kind of acknowledgment of his right to talk to her so directly. She said nothing. Filled with a thousand messages of love and tenderness she longed to pour into his ear she stood in silence on the gravel path with her hand on his shoulder.

And then an absurd thing happened. The fear that Margaret might come to some quick decision that would affect all of their future together made McGregor frantic. He did not want her to speak and wished his own words unsaid. "Wait. Not now," he cried and threw up his hand intending to take her hand. His fist struck the arm that lay on his shoulder and it in turn knocked his hat flying into the road. McGregor started to run after it and then stopped. He put his hand to his head and appeared lost in thought. When he turned again to pursue the hat Margaret, unable longer to control herself, shouted with laughter.

Hatless, McGregor walked up Drexel Boulevard in the soft stillness of the summer night. He was annoyed at the outcome of the evening and in his heart half wished that Margaret had sent him away defeated. His arms ached to have her against his breast but his mind kept presenting one after another the objections to marriage with her. "Men are submerged by such women and forget their work," he told himself. "They sit looking into the soft brown eyes of their beloved, thinking of happiness. A man should go about his work thinking of that. The fire that runs through the veins of his body should light his mind. One wants to take the love of woman as an end in life and the woman accepts that and is made happy by it." He thought with gratitude of Edith in her shop on Monroe Street. "I do not sit in my room at night dreaming of taking her in my arms and pouring kisses on her lips," he whispered.

       *       *       *       *       *

In the door of her house Mrs. Ormsby had stood watching McGregor and Margaret. She had seen them stop at the end of the walk. The figure of the man was lost in shadows and that of Margaret stood alone, outlined against a distant light. She saw Margaret's hand thrust out--was she clutching his sleeve--and heard the murmur of voices. And then the man precipitating himself into the street. His hat catapulted ahead of him and a quick outburst of half-hysterical laughter broke the stillness.

Laura Ormsby was furious. Although she hated McGregor she could not bear the thought that laughter should break the spell of romance. "She is just like her father," she muttered. "At least she might show some spirit and not be like a wooden thing, ending her first talk with a lover with a laugh like that."

As for Margaret she stood in the darkness trembling with happiness. She imagined herself going up the dark stairway to McGregor's office in Van Buren Street where once she had gone to take him news of the murder case--laying her hand upon his shoulder and saying, "Take me in your arms and kiss me. I am your woman. I want to live with you. I am ready to renounce my people and my world and to live your life for your sake." Margaret, standing in the darkness before the huge old house in Drexel Boulevard, imagined herself with Beaut McGregor-- living with him as his wife in a small apartment over a fish market on a West Side street. Why a fish market she could not have said.


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