Marching Men

by Sherwood Anderson

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Book VI: Chapter II

John Van Moore a young Chicago advertising man went one afternoon to the offices of the Wheelright Bicycle Company. The company had both its factory and offices far out on the west side. The factory was a huge brick affair fronted by a broad cement sidewalk and a narrow green lawn spotted with flower beds. The building used for offices was smaller and had a veranda facing the street. Up the sides of the office building vines grew.

Like the reporter who had watched the Marching Men in the field by the factory wall John Van Moore was a dapper young man with a moustache. In his leisure hours he played a clarinet. "It gives a man something to cling to," he explained to his friends. "One sees life going past and feels that he is not a mere drifting log in the stream of things. Although as a musician I amount to nothing, it at least makes me dream."

Among the men in the advertising office where he worked Van Moore was known as something of a fool, redeemed by his ability to string words together. He wore a heavy black braided watch chain and carried a cane and he had a wife who after marriage had studied medicine and with whom he did not live. Sometimes on a Saturday evening the two met at some restaurant and sat for hours drinking and laughing. When the wife had gone to her own place the advertising man continued the fun, going from saloon to saloon and making long speeches setting forth his philosophy of life. "I am an individualist," he declared, strutting up and down and swinging the cane about. "I am a dabbler, an experimenter if you will. Before I die it is my dream that I will discover a new quality in existence."

For the bicycle company the advertising man was to write a booklet telling in romantic and readable form the history of the company. When finished the booklet would be sent out to those who had answered advertisements put into magazines and newspapers. The company had a process of manufacture peculiar to Wheelright bicycles and in the booklet this was to be much emphasised.

The manufacturing process in regard to which John Van Moore was to wax eloquent had been conceived in the brain of a workman and was responsible for the company's success. Now the workman was dead and the president of the company had decided that he would take credit for the idea. He had thought a good deal of the matter and had decided that in truth the notion must have been more than a little his own. "It must have been so," he told himself, "otherwise it would not have worked out so well."

In the offices of the bicycle company the president, a grey gross man with tiny eyes, walked up and down a long room heavily carpeted. In reply to questions asked by the advertising man, who sat at a table with a pad of paper before him, he raised himself on his toes, put a thumb in the armhole of his vest and told a long rambling tale of which he was the hero.

The tale concerned a purely imaginary young workman who spent all of the earlier years of his life labouring terribly. At evening he ran quickly from the shop where he was employed and going without sleep toiled for long hours in a little garret. When the workman had discovered the secret that made successful the Wheelright bicycle he opened a shop and began to reap the reward of his efforts.

"That was me. I was that fellow," cried the fat man who in reality had bought his interest in the bicycle company after the age of forty. Tapping himself on the breast he paused as though overcome with feeling. Tears came into his eyes. The young workman had become a reality to him. "All day I ran about the little shop crying 'Quality! Quality!' I do that now. It is a fetish with me. I do not make bicycles for money but because I am a workman with pride in my work. You may put that in the book. You may quote me as saying that. A big point should be made of my pride in my work." The advertising man nodded his head and scribbled upon the pad of paper. Almost he could have written the story without the visit to the factory. When the fat man was not looking he turned his face to one side and listened attentively. With a whole heart he wished the president would go away and leave him alone to wander in the factory.

On the evening before, John Van Moore had taken part in an adventure. With a companion, a fellow who drew cartoons for the daily papers, he had gone into a saloon and there had met another man of the newspapers.

In the saloon the three men had sat until late into the night drinking and talking. The second newspaper man--that same dapper fellow who had watched the marchers by the factory wall--had told over and over the story of McGregor and his Marchers. "I tell you there is something growing up here," he had said. "I have seen this McGregor and I know. You may believe me or not but the fact is that he has found out something. There is an element in men that up to now has not been understood--there is a thought hidden away within the breast of labour, a big unspoken thought--it is a part of men's bodies as well as their minds. Suppose this fellow has figured that out and understands it, eh!"

Becoming more and more excited as he continued to drink the newspaper man had been half wild in his conjectures as to what was to happen in the world. Thumping with his fist upon a table wet with beer he had addressed the writer of advertisements. "There are things that animals know that have not been understood by men," he cried. "Consider the bees. Have you thought that man has not tried to work out a collective intellect? Why should man not try to work that out?"

The newspaper man's voice became low and tense. "When you go into a factory I want you to keep your eyes and your ears open," he said. "Go into one of the great rooms where many men are at work. Stand perfectly still. Don't try to think. Wait."

Jumping out of his seat the excited man had walked up and down before his companions. A group of men standing before the bar listened, their glasses held half way to their lips.

"I tell you there is already a song of labour. It has not got itself expressed and understood but it is in every shop, in every field where men work. In a dim way the men who work are conscious of the song although if you talk of the matter they only laugh. The song is low harsh rhythmical. I tell you it comes out of the very soul of labour. It is akin to the thing that artists understand and that is called form. This McGregor understands something of that. He is the first leader of labour that has understood. The world shall hear from him. One of these days the world shall ring with his name."

In the bicycle factory John Van Moore looked at the pad of paper before him and thought of the words of the half drunken man in the saloon. In the great shop at his back there was the steady grinding roar of many machines. The fat man, hypnotised by his own words, continued to walk up and down telling of the hardship that had once confronted the imaginary young workman and above which he had risen triumphant. "We hear much of the power of labour but there has been a mistake made," he said. "Such men as myself--we are the power. Do you see we have come out of the mass? We stand forth."

Stopping before the advertising man and looking down the fat man winked. "You do not need to say that in the book. There is no need of quoting me there. Our bicycles are being bought by workingmen and it would be foolish to offend them but what I say is nevertheless true. Do not such men as I, with our cunning brains and our power of patience build these great modern organisations?"

The fat man waved his arm toward the shops from which the roar of machinery came. The advertising man absentmindedly nodded his head. He was trying to hear the song of labour talked of by the drunken man. It was quitting time and there was the sound of many feet moving about the floor of the factory. The roar of the machinery stopped.

Again the fat man walked up and down talking of the career of the labourer who had come forth from the ranks of labour. From the factory the men began filing out into the open. There was the sound of feet scuffling along the wide cement sidewalk past the flowerbeds.

Of a sudden the fat man stopped. The advertising man sat with pencil suspended above the paper. From the walk below sharp commands rang out. Again the sound of men moving about came in through the windows.

The president of the bicycle company and the advertising man ran to the window. There on the cement sidewalk stood the men of the company formed into columns of fours and separated into companies. At the head of each company stood a captain. The captains swung the men about. "Forward! March!" they shouted.

The fat man stood with his mouth open and looked at the men. "What's going on down there? What do you mean? Quit that!" he bawled.

A derisive laugh floated up through the window.

"Attention! Forward, guide right!" shouted a captain.

The men went swinging down the broad cement sidewalk past the window and the advertising man. In their faces was something determined and grim. A sickly smile flitted across the face of the grey-haired man and then faded. The advertising man, without knowing just what was going on felt that the older man was afraid. He sensed the terror in his face. In his heart he was glad to see it.

The manufacturer began to talk excitedly. "Now what's this?" he demanded. "What's going on? What kind of a volcano are we men of affairs walking over? Haven't we had enough trouble with labour? What are they doing now?" Again he walked up and down past the table where the advertising man sat looking at him. "We'll let the book go," he said. "Come to-morrow. Come any time. I want to look into this. I want to find out what's going on."

Leaving the office of the bicycle company John Van Moore ran along the street past stores and houses. He did not try to follow the Marching Men but ran forward blindly, filled with excitement. He remembered the words of the newspaper man about the song of labour, and was drunk with the thought that he had caught the swing of it. A hundred times he had seen men pouring out of factory doors at the end of the day. Always before they had been just a mass of individuals. Each had been thinking of his own affairs and each man had shuffled off into his own street and had been lost in the dim alleyways between the tall grimy buildings. Now all of this was changed. The men did not shuffle off alone but marched along the street shoulder to shoulder.

A lump came also into the throat of this man and he like that other by the factory wall began to say words. "The song of labour is here. It has begun to get itself sung!" he cried.

John Van Moore was beside himself. The face of the fat man pale with terror came back into his mind. On the sidewalk before a grocery store he stopped and shouted with delight. Then he began dancing wildly about, startling a group of children who with fingers in their mouths stood with staring eyes watching.


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