Windy McPherson, the father of the Caxton newsboy, Sam McPherson, had beenwar touched. The civilian clothes that he wore caused an itching of theskin. He could not forget that he had once been a sergeant in a regimentof infantry and had commanded a company through a battle fought in ditchesalong a Virginia country road. He chafed under the fact of his presentobscure position in life. Had he been able to replace his regimentals withthe robes of a judge, the felt hat of a statesman, or even with the nightstick of a village marshal life might have retained something of itssweetness, but to have ended by becoming an obscure housepainter in avillage that lived by raising corn and by feeding that corn to red steers--ugh!--the thought made him shudder. He looked with envy at the blue coatand the brass buttons of the railroad agent; he tried vainly to get intothe Caxton Cornet Band; he got drunk to forget his humiliation and in theend he fell to loud boasting and to the nursing of a belief within himselfthat in truth not Lincoln nor Grant but he himself had thrown the winningdie in the great struggle. In his cups he said as much and the Caxton corngrower, punching his neighbour in the ribs, shook with delight over thestatement.
When Sam was a twelve year old, barefooted boy upon the streets a kind ofbackwash of the wave of glory that had swept over Windy McPherson in thedays of '61 lapped upon the shores of the Iowa village. That strangemanifestation called the A. P. A. movement brought the old soldier to aposition of prominence in the community. He founded a local branch of theorganisation; he marched at the head of a procession through the streets;he stood on a corner and pointing a trembling forefinger to where the flagon the schoolhouse waved beside the cross of Rome, shouted hoarsely, "See,the cross rears itself above the flag! We shall end by being murdered inour beds!"
But although some of the hard-headed, money-making men of Caxton joinedthe movement started by the boasting old soldier and although for themoment they vied with him in stealthy creepings through the streets tosecret meetings and in mysterious mutterings behind hands the movementsubsided as suddenly as it had begun and only left its leader moredesolate.
In the little house at the end of the street by the shores of SquirrelCreek, Sam and his sister Kate regarded their father's warlike pretensionswith scorn. "The butter is low, father's army leg will ache to-night,"they whispered to each other across the kitchen table.
Following her mother's example, Kate, a tall slender girl of sixteen andalready a bread winner with a clerkship in Winney's drygoods store,remained silent under Windy's boasting, but Sam, striving to emulate them,did not always succeed. There was now and then a rebellious muttering thatshould have warned Windy. It had once burst into an open quarrel in whichthe victor of a hundred battles withdrew defeated from the field. Windy,half-drunk, had taken an old account book from a shelf in the kitchen, arelic of his days as a prosperous merchant when he had first come toCaxton, and had begun reading to the little family a list of names of menwho, he claimed, had been the cause of his ruin.
"There is Tom Newman, now," he exclaimed excitedly. "Owns a hundred acresof good corn-growing land and won't pay for the harness on the backs ofhis horses or for the ploughs in his barn. The receipt he has from me isforged. I could put him in prison if I chose. To beat an old soldier!--tobeat one of the boys of '61!--it is shameful!"
"I have heard of what you owed and what men owed you; you had none theworst of it," Sam protested coldly, while Kate held her breath and JaneMcPherson, at work over the ironing board in the corner, half turned andlooked silently at the man and the boy, the slightly increased pallor ofher long face the only sign that she had heard.
Windy had not pressed the quarrel. Standing for a moment in the middle ofthe kitchen, holding the book in his hand, he looked from the pale silentmother by the ironing board to the son now standing and staring at him,and, throwing the book upon the table with a bang, fled the house. "Youdon't understand," he had cried, "you don't understand the heart of asoldier."
In a way the man was right. The two children did not understand theblustering, pretending, inefficient old man. Having moved shoulder toshoulder with grim, silent men to the consummation of great deeds Windycould not get the flavour of those days out of his outlook upon life.Walking half drunk in the darkness along the sidewalks of Caxton on theevening of the quarrel the man became inspired. He threw back hisshoulders and walked with martial tread; he drew an imaginary sword fromits scabbard and waved it aloft; stopping, he aimed carefully at a body ofimaginary men who advanced yelling toward him across a wheatfield; he feltthat life in making him a housepainter in a farming village in Iowa and ingiving him an unappreciative son had been cruelly unfair; he wept at theinjustice of it.
The American Civil War was a thing so passionate, so inflaming, so vast,so absorbing, it so touched to the quick the men and women of thosepregnant days that but a faint echo of it has been able to penetrate downto our days and to our minds; no real sense of it has as yet crept intothe pages of a printed book; it yet wants its Thomas Carlyle; and in theend we are put to the need of listening to old fellows boasting on ourvillage streets to get upon our cheeks the living breath of it. For fouryears the men of American cities, villages and farms walked across thesmoking embers of a burning land, advancing and receding as the flame ofthat universal, passionate, death-spitting thing swept down upon them orreceded toward the smoking sky-line. Is it so strange that they could notcome home and begin again peacefully painting houses or mending brokenshoes? A something in them cried out. It sent them to bluster and boastupon the street corners. When people passing continued to think only oftheir brick laying and of their shovelling of corn into cars, when thesons of these war gods walking home at evening and hearing the vainboastings of the fathers began to doubt even the facts of the greatstruggle, a something snapped in their brains and they fell to chatteringand shouting their vain boastings to all as they looked hungrily about forbelieving eyes.
When our own Thomas Carlyle comes to write of our Civil War he will makemuch of our Windy McPhersons. He will see something big and pathetic intheir hungry search for auditors and in their endless war talk. He will gofilled with eager curiosity into little G. A. R. halls in the villages andthink of the men who coming there night after night, year after year, toldand re-told endlessly, monotonously, their story of battle.
Let us hope that in his fervour for the old fellows he will not fail totreat tenderly the families of those veteran talkers; the families thatwith their breakfasts and their dinners, by the fire at evening, throughfast day and feast day, at weddings and at funerals got again and againendlessly, everlastingly this flow of war words. Let him reflect thatpeaceful men in corn-growing counties do not by choice sleep among thedogs of war nor wash their linen in the blood of their country's foe. Lethim, in his sympathy with the talkers, remember with kindness the heroismof the listeners.
* * * * *
On a summer day Sam McPherson sat on a box before Wildman's grocery lostin thought. In his hand he held the little yellow account book and in thishe buried himself, striving to wipe from his consciousness a scene beingenacted before his eyes upon the street.
The realisation of the fact that his father was a confirmed liar andbraggart had for years cast a shadow over his days and the shadow had beenmade blacker by the fact that in a land where the least fortunate canlaugh in the face of want he had more than once stood face to face withpoverty. He believed that the logical answer to the situation was money inthe bank and with all the ardour of his boy's heart he strove to realisethat answer. He wanted to be a money-maker and the totals at the foot ofthe pages in the soiled yellow bankbook were the milestones that markedthe progress he had already made. They told him that the daily struggleswith Fatty, the long tramps through Caxton's streets on bleak winterevenings, and the never-ending Saturday nights when crowds filled thestores, the sidewalks, and the drinking places, and he worked among themtirelessly and persistently were not without fruit.
Suddenly, above the murmur of men's voices on the street, his father'svoice rose loud and insistent. A block further down the street, leaningagainst the door of Hunter's jewelry store, Windy talked at the top of hislungs, pumping his arms up and down with the air of a man making a stumpspeech.
"He is making a fool of himself," thought Sam, and returned to hisbankbook, striving in the contemplation of the totals at the foot of thepages to shake off the dull anger that had begun to burn in his brain.Glancing up again, he saw that Joe Wildman, son of the grocer and a boy ofhis own age, had joined the group of men laughing and jeering at Windy.The shadow on Sam's face grew heavier.
Sam had been at Joe Wildman's house; he knew the air of plenty and ofcomfort that hung over it; the table piled high with meat and potatoes;the group of children laughing and eating to the edge of gluttony; thequiet, gentle father who amid the clamour and the noise did not raise hisvoice, and the well-dressed, bustling, rosy-cheeked mother. As a contrastto this scene he began to call up in his mind a picture of life in his ownhome, getting a kind of perverted pleasure out of his dissatisfaction withit. He saw the boasting, incompetent father telling his endless tales ofthe Civil War and complaining of his wounds; the tall, stoop-shouldered,silent mother with the deep lines in her long face, everlastingly at workover her washtub among the soiled clothes; the silent, hurriedly-eatenmeals snatched from the kitchen table; and the long winter days when iceformed upon his mother's skirts and Windy idled about town while thelittle family subsisted upon bowls of cornmeal mush everlastinglyrepeated.
Now, even from where he sat, he could see that his father was half gone indrink, and knew that he was boasting of his part in the Civil War. "He iseither doing that or telling of his aristocratic family or lying about hisbirthplace," he thought resentfully, and unable any longer to endure thesight of what seemed to him his own degradation, he got up and went intothe grocery where a group of Caxton citizens stood talking to Wildman of ameeting to be held that morning at the town hall.
Caxton was to have a Fourth of July celebration. The idea, born in theheads of the few, had been taken up by the many. Rumours of it had runthrough the streets late in May. It had been talked of in Geiger's drugstore, at the back of Wildman's grocery, and in the street before the NewLeland House. John Telfer, the town's one man of leisure, had for weeksbeen going from place to place discussing the details with prominent men.Now a mass meeting was to be held in the hall over Geiger's drug store andto a man the citizens of Caxton had turned out for the meeting. Thehousepainter had come down off his ladder, the clerks were locking thedoors of the stores, men went along the streets in groups bound for thehall. As they went they shouted to each other. "The old town has woke up,"they called.
On a corner by Hunter's jewelry store Windy McPherson leaned against abuilding and harangued the passing crowd.
"Let the old flag wave," he shouted excitedly, "let the men of Caxton showthe true blue and rally to the old standards."
"That's right, Windy, expostulate with them," shouted a wit, and a roar oflaughter drowned Windy's reply.
Sam McPherson also went to the meeting in the hall. He came out of thegrocery store with Wildman and went along the street looking at thesidewalk and trying not to see the drunken man talking in front of thejewelry store. At the hall other boys stood in the stairway or ran up anddown the sidewalk talking excitedly, but Sam was a figure in the town'slife and his right to push in among the men was not questioned. Hesquirmed through the mass of legs and secured a seat in a window ledgewhere he could watch the men come in and find seats.
As Caxton's one newsboy Sam had got from his newspaper selling both aliving and a kind of standing in the town's life. To be a newsboy or abootblack in a small novel-reading American town is to make a figure inthe world. Do not all of the poor newsboys in the books become great menand is not this boy who goes among us so industriously day after daylikely to become such a figure? Is it not a duty we of the town owe tofuture greatness that we push him forward? So reasoned the men of Caxtonand paid a kind of court to the boy who sat on the window ledge of thehall while the other boys of the town waited on the sidewalk below.
John Telfer was chairman of the mass meeting. He was always chairman ofpublic meetings in Caxton. The industrious silent men of position in thetown envied his easy, bantering style of public address, while pretendingto treat it with scorn. "He talks too much," they said, making a virtue oftheir own inability with apt and clever words.
Telfer did not wait to be appointed chairman of the meeting, but wentforward, climbed the little raised platform at the end of the hall, andusurped the chairmanship. He walked up and down on the platform banteringwith the crowd, answering gibes, calling to well-known men, getting andgiving keen satisfaction with his talent. When the hall was filled withmen he called the meeting to order, appointed committees and launched intoa harangue. He told of plans made to advertise the big day in other townsand to get low railroad rates arranged for excursion parties. Theprogramme, he said, included a musical carnival with brass bands fromother towns, a sham battle by the military company at the fairgrounds,horse races, speeches from the steps of the town hall, and fireworks inthe evening. "We'll show them a live town here," he declared, walking upand down the platform and swinging his cane, while the crowd applauded andshouted its approval.
When a call came for voluntary subscriptions to pay for the fun, theaudience quieted down. One or two men got up and started to go out,grumbling that it was a waste of money. The fate of the celebration was onthe knees of the gods.
Telfer arose to the occasion. He called out the names of the departing,and made jests at their expense so that they dropped back into theirchairs unable to face the roaring laughter of the crowd, and shouted to aman at the back of the hall to close and bolt the door. Men began gettingup in various parts of the hall and calling out sums, Telfer repeating thename and the amount in a loud voice to young Tom Jedrow, clerk in thebank, who wrote them down in a book. When the amount subscribed did notmeet with his approval, he protested and the crowd backing him up forcedthe increase he demanded. When a man did not rise, he shouted at him andthe man answered back an amount.
Suddenly in the hall a diversion arose. Windy McPherson emerged from thecrowd at the back of the hall and walked down the centre aisle to theplatform. He walked unsteadily straightening his shoulders and thrustingout his chin. When he got to the front of the hall he took a roll of billsfrom his pocket and threw it on the platform at the chairman's feet. "Fromone of the boys of '61," he announced in a loud voice.
The crowd shouted and clapped its hands with delight as Telfer picked upthe bills and ran his finger over them. "Seventeen dollars from our hero,the mighty McPherson," he shouted while the bank clerk wrote the name andthe amount in the book and the crowd continued to make merry over thetitle given the drunken soldier by the chairman.
The boy on the window ledge slipped to the floor and stood with burningcheeks behind the mass of men. He knew that at home his mother was doing afamily washing for Lesley, the shoe merchant, who had given five dollarsto the Fourth-of-July fund, and the resentment he had felt on seeing hisfather talking to the crowd before the jewelry store blazed up anew.
After the taking of subscriptions, men in various parts of the hall beganmaking suggestions for added features for the great day. To some of thespeakers the crowd listened respectfully, at others they hooted. An oldman with a grey beard told a long rambling story of a Fourth-of-Julycelebration of his boyhood. When voices interrupted he protested and shookhis fist in the air, pale with indignation.
"Oh, sit down, old daddy," shouted Freedom Smith and a murmur of applausegreeted this sensible suggestion.
Another man got up and began to talk. He had an idea. "We will have," hesaid, "a bugler mounted on a white horse who will ride through the town atdawn blowing the reveille. At midnight he will stand on the steps of thetown hall and blow taps to end the day."
The crowd applauded. The idea had caught their fancy and had instantlytaken a place in their minds as one of the real events of the day.
Again Windy McPherson emerged from the crowd at the back of the hall.Raising his hand for silence he told the crowd that he was a bugler, thathe had been a regimental bugler for two years during the Civil War. Hesaid that he would gladly volunteer for the place.
The crowd shouted and John Telfer waved his hand. "The white horse foryou, McPherson," he said.
Sam McPherson wriggled along the wall and out at the now unbolted door. Hewas filled with astonishment at his father's folly, and was still moreastonished at the folly of these other men in accepting his statement andhanding over the important place for the big day. He knew that his fathermust have had some part in the war as he was a member of the G. A. R., buthe had no faith at all in the stories he had heard him relate of hisexperiences in the war. Sometimes he caught himself wondering if thereever had been such a war and thought that it must be a lie like everythingelse in the life of Windy McPherson. For years he had wondered why somesensible solid person like Valmore or Wildman did not rise, and in amatter-of-fact way tell the world that no such thing as the Civil War hadever been fought, that it was merely a figment in the minds of pompous oldmen demanding unearned glory of their fellows. Now hurrying along thestreet with burning cheeks, he decided that after all there must have beensuch a war. He had had the same feeling about birthplaces and there couldbe no doubt that people were born. He had heard his father claim as hisbirthplace Kentucky, Texas, North Carolina, Louisiana and Scotland. Thething had left a kind of defect in his mind. To the end of his life whenhe heard a man tell the place of his birth he looked up suspiciously, anda shadow of doubt crossed his mind.
From the mass meeting Sam went home to his mother and presented the casebluntly. "The thing will have to be stopped," he declared, standing withblazing eyes before her washtub. "It is too public. He can't blow a bugle;I know he can't. The whole town will have another laugh at our expense."
Jane McPherson listened in silence to the boy's outburst, then, turning,went back to rubbing clothes, avoiding his eyes.
With his hands thrust into his trousers pocket Sam stared sullenly at theground. A sense of justice told him not to press the matter, but as hewalked away from the washtub and out at the kitchen door, he hoped therewould be plain talk of the matter at supper time. "The old fool!" heprotested, addressing the empty street. "He is going to make a show ofhimself again."
When Windy McPherson came home that evening, something in the eyes of thesilent wife, and the sullen face of the boy, startled him. He passed overlightly his wife's silence but looked closely at his son. He felt that hefaced a crisis. In the emergency he was magnificent. With a flourish, hetold of the mass meeting, and declared that the citizens of Caxton hadarisen as one man to demand that he take the responsible place as officialbugler. Then, turning, he glared across the table at his son.
Sam, openly defiant, announced that he did not believe his father capableof blowing a bugle.
Windy roared with amazement. He rose from the table declaring in a loudvoice that the boy had wronged him; he swore that he had been for twoyears bugler on the staff of a colonel, and launched into a long story ofa surprise by the enemy while his regiment lay asleep in their tents, andof his standing in the face of a storm of bullets and blowing his comradesto action. Putting one hand on his forehead he rocked back and forth asthough about to fall, declaring that he was striving to keep back thetears wrenched from him by the injustice of his son's insinuation and,shouting so that his voice carried far down the street, he declared withan oath that the town of Caxton should ring and echo with his bugling asthe sleeping camp had echoed with it that night in the Virginia wood. Thendropping again into his chair, and resting his head upon his hand, heassumed a look of patient resignation.
Windy McPherson was victorious. In the little house a great stir andbustle of preparation arose. Putting on his white overalls and forgettingfor the time his honourable wounds the father went day after day to hiswork as a housepainter. He dreamed of a new blue uniform for the great dayand in the end achieved the realisation of his dreams, not however withoutmaterial assistance from what was known in the house as "Mother's WashMoney." And the boy, convinced by the story of the midnight attack in thewoods of Virginia, began against his judgment to build once more an olddream of his father's reformation. Boylike, the scepticism was thrown tothe winds and he entered with zeal into the plans for the great day. As hewent through the quiet residence streets delivering the late eveningpapers, he threw back his head and revelled in the thought of a tall blueclad figure on a great white horse passing like a knight before the gapingpeople. In a fervent moment he even drew money from his carefully built-upbank account and sent it to a firm in Chicago to pay for a shining newbugle that would complete the picture he had in his mind. And when theevening papers were distributed he hurried home to sit on the porch beforethe house discussing with his sister Kate the honours that had alightedupon their family.
* * * * *
With the coming of dawn on the great day the three McPhersons hurried handin hand toward Main Street. In the street, on all sides of them, they sawpeople coming out of houses rubbing their eyes and buttoning their coatsas they went along the sidewalk. All of Caxton seemed abroad.
In Main Street the people were packed on the sidewalk, and massed on thecurb and in the doorways of the stores. Heads appeared at windows, flagswaved from roofs or hung from ropes stretched across the street, and agreat murmur of voices broke the silence of the dawn.
Sam's heart beat so that he was hard put to it to keep back the tears fromhis eyes. He thought with a gasp of the days of anxiety that had passedwhen the new bugle had not come from the Chicago company, and inretrospect he suffered again the horror of the days of waiting. It hadbeen all important. He could not blame his father for raving and shoutingabout the house, he himself had felt like raving, and had put anotherdollar of his savings into telegrams before the treasure was finally inhis hands. Now, the thought that it might not have come sickened him, anda little prayer of thankfulness rose from his lips. To be sure one mighthave been secured from a nearby town, but not a new shining one to go withhis father's new blue uniform.
A cheer broke from the crowd massed along the street. Into the street rodea tall figure seated upon a white horse. The horse was from Culvert'slivery and the boys there had woven ribbons into its mane and tail. WindyMcPherson, sitting very straight in the saddle and looking wonderfullystriking in the new blue uniform and the broad-brimmed campaign hat, hadthe air of a conqueror come to receive the homage of the town. He wore a gold band across his chest and against his hip rested theshining bugle. With stern eyes he looked down upon the people.
The lump in the throat of the boy hurt more and more. A great wave ofpride ran over him, submerging him. In a moment he forgot all the pasthumiliations the father had brought upon his family, and understood whyhis mother remained silent when he, in his blindness, had wanted toprotest against her seeming indifference. Glancing furtively up he saw atear lying upon her cheek and felt that he too would like to sob aloud hispride and happiness.
Slowly and with stately stride the horse walked up the street between therows of silent waiting people. In front of the town hall the tall militaryfigure, rising in the saddle, took one haughty look at the multitude, andthen, putting the bugle to his lips, blew.
Out of the bugle came only a thin piercing shriek followed by a squawk.Again Windy put the bugle to his lips and again the same dismal squawk washis only reward. On his face was a look of helpless boyish astonishment.
And in a moment the people knew. It was only another of Windy McPherson'spretensions. He couldn't blow a bugle at all.
A great shout of laughter rolled down the street. Men and women sat on thecurbstones and laughed until they were tired. Then, looking at the figureupon the motionless horse, they laughed again.
Windy looked about him with troubled eyes. It is doubtful if he had everhad a bugle to his lips until that moment, but he was filled with wonderand astonishment that the reveille did not roll forth. He had heard thething a thousand times and had it clearly in his mind; with all his hearthe wanted it to roll forth, and could picture the street ringing with itand the applause of the people; the thing, he felt, was in him, and it wasonly a fatal blunder in nature that it did not come out at the flaring endof the bugle. He was amazed at this dismal end of his great moment--he wasalways amazed and helpless before facts.
The crowd began gathering about the motionless, astonished figure,laughter continuing to send them off into something near convulsions.Grasping the bridle of the horse, John Telfer began leading it off up thestreet. Boys whooped and shouted at the rider, "Blow! Blow!"
The three McPhersons stood in a doorway leading into a shoe store. The boyand the mother, white and speechless with humiliation, dared not look ateach other. In the flood of shame sweeping over them they stared straightbefore them with hard, stony eyes.
The procession led by John Telfer at the bridle of the white horse marcheddown the street. Looking up, the eyes of the laughing, shouting man metthose of the boy and a look of pain shot across his face. Dropping thebridle he hurried away through the crowd. The procession moved on, andwatching their chance the mother and the two children crept home alongside streets, Kate weeping bitterly. Leaving them at the door Sam wentstraight on down a sandy road toward a small wood. "I've got my lesson.I've got my lesson," he muttered over and over as he went.
At the edge of the wood he stopped and leaning on a rail fence watcheduntil he saw his mother come out to the pump in the back yard. She hadbegun to draw water for the day's washing. For her also the holiday was atan end. A flood of tears ran down the boy's cheeks, and he shook his fistin the direction of the town. "You may laugh at that fool Windy, but youshall never laugh at Sam McPherson," he cried, his voice shaking withexcitement.