The funeral of Jane McPherson was a trying affair for her son. He thoughtthat his sister Kate, with the babe in her arms, had become coarsened--shelooked frumpish and, while they were in the house, had an air of havingquarrelled with her husband when they came out of their bedroom in themorning. During the funeral service Sam sat in the parlour, astonished andirritated by the endless number of women that crowded into the house. Theywere everywhere, in the kitchen, the sleeping room back of the parlour;and in the parlour, where the dead woman lay in her coffin, they weremassed. When the thin-lipped minister, holding a book in his hand, heldforth upon the virtues of the dead woman, they wept. Sam looked at thefloor and thought that thus they would have wept over the body of the deadWindy, had his fingers but tightened a trifle. He wondered if the ministerwould have talked in the same way--blatantly and without knowledge--of thevirtues of the dead. In a chair at the side of the coffin the bereavedhusband, in new black clothes, wept audibly. The baldheaded, officiousundertaker kept moving nervously about, intent upon the ritual of histrade.
During the service, a man sitting behind him dropped a note on the floorat Sam's feet. Sam picked it up and read it, glad of something to distracthis attention from the voice of the minister, and the faces of the weepingwomen, none of whom had before been in the house and all of whom hethought strikingly lacking in a sense of the sacredness of privacy. Thenote was from John Telfer.
"I will not come to your mother's funeral," he wrote. "I respected yourmother while she lived and I will leave you alone with her now that she isdead. In her memory I will hold a ceremony in my heart. If I am inWildman's, I may ask the man to quit selling soap and tobacco for themoment and to close and lock the door. If I am at Valmore's shop, I willgo up into his loft and listen to him pounding on the anvil below. If heor Freedom Smith go to your house, I warn them I will cut theirfriendship. When I see the carriages going through the street and knowthat the thing is right well done and over, I will buy flowers and takethem to Mary Underwood as an appreciation of the living in the name of thedead."
The note cheered and comforted Sam. It gave him back a grip of somethingthat had slipped from him.
"It is good sense, after all," he thought, and realised that even in thedays when he was being made to suffer horrors, and in the face of the factthat Jane McPherson's long, hard role was just being played out to theend, the farmer in the field was sowing his corn, Valmore was beating uponhis anvil, and John Telfer was writing notes with a flourish. He arose,interrupting the minister's discourse. Mary Underwood had come in just asthe minister began talking and had dropped into an obscure corner near thedoor leading into the street. Sam crowded past the women who stared andthe minister who frowned and the baldheaded undertaker who wrung his handsand, dropping the note into her lap, said, oblivious of the people lookingand listening with breathless curiosity, "It is from John Telfer. Read it.Even he, hating women as he did, is now bringing flowers to your door."
In the room a wind of whispered comments sprang up. Women, putting theirheads together and their hands before their faces, nodded toward theschool teacher, and the boy, unconscious of the sensation he had created,went back to his chair and looked again at the floor, waiting until thetalk and the singing of songs and the parading through the streets shouldbe ended. Again the minister began reading from the book.
"I have become older than all of these people here," thought the youth."They play at life and death, and I have felt it between the fingers of myhand."
Mary Underwood, lacking Sam's unconsciousness of the people, looked aboutwith burning cheeks. Seeing the women whispering and putting their headstogether, a chill of fear ran through her. Into the room had been thrustthe face of an old enemy to her--the scandal of a small town. Picking upthe note she slipped out at the door and stole away along the street. Theold maternal love for Sam had returned strengthened and ennobled by theterror through which she had passed with him that night in the rain. Goingto her house she whistled the collie dog and set out along a country road.At the edge of a grove of trees she stopped, sat down on a log, and readTelfer's note. From the soft ground into which her feet sank there camethe warm pungent smell of the new growth. Tears came into her eyes. Shethought that in a few days much had come to her. She had got a boy uponwhom she could pour out the mother love in her heart, and she had made afriend of Telfer, whom she had long regarded with fear and doubt.
For a month Sam lingered in Caxton. It seemed to him there was somethingthat wanted doing there. He sat with the men at the back of Wildman's, andwalked aimlessly through the streets and out of the town along the countryroads, where men worked all day in the fields behind sweating horses,ploughing the land. The thrill of spring was in the air, and in theevening a song sparrow sang in the apple tree below his bedroom window.Sam walked and loitered in silence, looking at the ground. In his mind wasthe dread of people. The talk of the men in the store wearied him and whenhe went alone into the country he found himself accompanied by the voicesof all of those he had come out of town to escape. On the street cornerthe thin-lipped, brown-bearded minister stopped him and talked of thefuture life as he had stopped and talked to a bare-legged newsboy.
"Your mother," he said, "has but gone before. It is for you to get intothe narrow path and follow her. God has sent this sorrow as a warning toyou. He wants you also to get into the way of life and in the end to joinher. Begin coming to our church. Join in the work of the Christ. Findtruth."
Sam, who had listened without hearing, shook his head and went on. Theminister's talk seemed no more than a meaningless jumble of words out ofwhich he got but one thought.
"Find truth," he repeated to himself after the minister, and let his mindplay with the idea. "The best men are all trying to do that. They spendtheir lives at the task. They are all trying to find truth."
He went along the street, pleased with himself because of theinterpretation he had put upon the minister's words. The terrible momentsin the kitchen followed by his mother's death had put a new look ofseriousness into his face and he felt within him a new sense ofresponsibility to the dead woman and to himself. Men stopped him on thestreet and wished him well in the city. News of his leaving had becomepublic. Things in which Freedom Smith was concerned were always publicaffairs.
"He would take a drum with him to make love to a neighbour's wife," saidJohn Telfer.
Sam felt that in a way he was a child of Caxton. Early it had taken him toits bosom; it had made of him a semi-public character; it had encouragedhim in his money-making, humiliated him through his father, and patronisedhim lovingly because of his toiling mother. When he was a boy, scurryingbetween the legs of the drunkards in Piety Hollow of a Saturday night,there was always some one to speak a word to him of his morals and toshout at him a cheering word of advice. Had he elected to remain there,with the thirty-five hundred dollars already in the Savings Bank--built tothat during his years with Freedom Smith--he might soon become one of thetown's solid men.
He did not want to stay. He felt that his call was in another place andthat he would go there gladly. He wondered why he did not get on the trainand be off.
One night when he had been late on the road, loitering by fences, hearingthe lonely barking of dogs at distant farmhouses, getting the smell of thenew-ploughed ground into his nostrils, he came into town and sat down on alow iron fence that ran along by the platform of the railroad station, towait for the midnight train north. Trains had taken on a new meaning tohim since any day might see him on such a train bound into his new life.
A man, with two bags in his hands, came on the station platform followedby two women.
"Here, watch these," he said to the women, setting the bags upon theplatform; "I will go for the tickets," and disappeared into the darkness.
The two women resumed their interrupted talk.
"Ed's wife has been poorly these ten years," said one of them. "It will bebetter for her and for Ed now that she is dead, but I dread the long ride.I wish she had died when I was in Ohio two years ago. I am sure to betrain-sick."
Sam, sitting in the darkness, was thinking of a part of one of JohnTelfer's old talks with him.
"They are good people but they are not your people. You will go away fromhere. You will be a big man of dollars, it is plain."
He began listening idly to the two women. The man had a shop for mendingshoes on a side street back of Geiger's drug store and the two women, oneshort and round, one long and thin, kept a small, dingy millinery shop andwere Eleanor Telfer's only competitors.
"Well, the town knows her now for what she is," said the tall woman."Milly Peters says she won't rest until she has put that stuck-up MaryUnderwood in her place. Her mother worked in the McPherson house and itwas her told Milly. I never heard such a story. To think of Jane McPhersonworking all these years and then having such goings-on in her house whenshe lay dying, Milly says that Sam went away early in the evening and camehome late with that Underwood thing, half dressed, hanging on his arm.Milly's mother looked out of the window and saw them. Then she ran out bythe kitchen stove and pretended to be asleep. She wanted to see what wasup. And the bold hussy came right into the house with Sam. Then she wentaway, and after a while back she came with that John Telfer. Milly isgoing to see that Eleanor Telfer finds it out. I guess it will bring herdown, too. And there is no telling how many other men in this town MaryUnderwood is running with. Milly says----"
The two women turned as out of the darkness came a tall figure roaring andswearing. Two hands flashed out and sank into their hair.
"Stop it!" growled Sam, beating the two heads together, "stop your dirtylies!--you ugly she-beasts!"
Hearing the two women screaming the man who had gone for the railroadtickets came running down the station platform followed by Jerry Donlin.Springing forward Sam knocked the shoemaker over the iron fence into anewly spaded flower bed and then turned to the baggage man.
"They were telling lies about Mary Underwood," he shouted. "She tried tosave me from killing my father and now they are telling lies about her."
The two women picked up the bags and ran whimpering away along the stationplatform. Jerry Donlin climbed over the iron fence and confronted thesurprised and frightened shoemaker.
"What the Hell are you doing in my flower bed?" he growled.
* * * * *
Hurrying through the streets Sam's mind was in a ferment. Like the Romanemperor he wished that all the world had but one head that he might cut itoff with a slash. The town that had seemed so paternal, so cheery, sointent upon wishing him well, now seemed horrible. He thought of it as agreat, crawling, slimy thing lying in wait amid the cornfields.
"To be saying that of her, of that white soul!" he exclaimed aloud in theempty street, all of his boyish loyalty and devotion to the woman who hadput out a hand to him in his hour of trouble aroused and burning in him.
He wished that he might meet another man and could hit him also a swingingblow on the nose as he had hit the amazed shoemaker. He went to his ownhouse and, leaning on the gate, stood looking at it and swearingmeaninglessly. Then, turning, he went again through the deserted streetspast the railroad station where, the midnight train having come and goneand Jerry Donlin having gone home for the night, all was dark and quiet.He was filled with horror of what Mary Underwood had seen at JaneMcPherson's funeral.
"It is better to be utterly bad than to speak ill of another," he thought.
For the first time he realised another side of village life. In fancy hesaw going past him on the dark road a long file of women, women withcoarse unlighted faces and dead eyes. Many of the faces he knew. They werethe faces of Caxton wives at whose houses he had delivered papers. Heremembered how eagerly they had run out of their houses to get the papersand how they hung day after day over the details of sensational murdercases. Once, when a Chicago girl had been murdered in a dive and thedetails were unusually revolting, two women, unable to restrain theircuriosity, had come to the station to wait for the train bringing thenewspapers and Sam had heard them rolling the horrid mess over and over ontheir tongues.
In every city and in every village there is a class of women, the thoughtof whom paralyses the mind. They live their lives in small, unaired,unsanitary houses, and go on year after year washing dishes and clothes-only their fingers occupied. They read no good books, think no cleanthoughts, are made love to as John Telfer had said, with kisses in adarkened room by a shame-faced yokel and, after marrying some such ayokel, live lives of unspeakable blankness. Into the houses of these womencome the husbands at evening, tired and uncommunicative, to eat hurriedlyand then go again into the streets or, the blessing of utter physicalexhaustion having come to them, to sit for an hour in stockinged feetbefore crawling away to sleep and oblivion.
In these women is no light, no vision. They have instead certain fixedideas to which they cling with a persistency touching heroism. To the manthey have snatched from society they cling also with a tenacity to bemeasured only by their love of a roof over their heads and the craving forfood to put into their stomachs. Being mothers, they are the despair ofreformers, the shadow on the vision of dreamers and they put the blackdread upon the heart of the poet who cries, "The female of the species ismore deadly than the male." At their worst they are to be seen drunk withemotion amid the lurid horrors of a French Revolution or immersed in thesecret whispering, creeping terror of a religious persecution. At theirbest they are mothers of half mankind. Wealth coming to them, they throwthemselves into garish display of it and flash upon the sight of Newportor Palm Beach. In their native lair in the close little houses, they sleepin the bed of the man who has put clothes upon their backs and food intotheir mouths because that is the usage of their kind and give him of theirbodies grudgingly or willingly as the laws of their physical needs direct.They do not love, they sell, instead, their bodies in the market place andcry out that man shall witness their virtue because they had had the joyof finding one buyer instead of the many of the red sisterhood. A fierceanimalism in them makes them cling to the babe at their breast and in thedays of its softness and loveliness they close their eyes and try to catchagain an old fleeting dream of their girlhood, a something vague, shadowy,no longer a part of them, brought with the babe out of the infinite.Having passed beyond the land of dreams, they dwell in the land ofemotions and weep over the bodies of unknown dead or sit under theeloquence of evangelists, shouting of heaven and of hell--the call to theone being brother to the call of the other--crying upon the troubled airof hot little churches, where hope is fighting in the jaws of vulgarity,"The weight of my sins is heavy on my soul." Along streets they go liftingheavy eyes to peer into the lives of others and to get a morsel to rollupon their heavy tongues. Having fallen upon a side light in the life of aMary Underwood they return to it again and again as a dog to its offal.Something touching the lives of such as walk in the clean air, dreamdreams, and have the audacity to be beautiful beyond the beauty of animalyouth, maddens them, and they cry out, running from kitchen door tokitchen door and tearing at the prize like a starved beast who has found acarcass. Let but earnest women found a movement and crowd it forward tothe day when it smacks of success and gives promise of the fine emotion ofachievement, and they fall upon it with a cry, having hysteria rather thanreason as their guiding impulse. In them is all of femininity--and none ofit. For the most part they live and die unseen, unknown, eating rank food,sleeping overmuch, and sitting through summer afternoons rocking in chairsand looking at people passing in the street. In the end they die full offaith, hoping for a life to come.
Sam stood upon the road fearing the attacks these women were now making onMary Underwood. The moon coming up, threw its light on the fields that laybeside the road and brought out their early spring nakedness and hethought them dreary and hideous, like the faces of the women that had beenmarching through his mind. He drew his overcoat about him and shivered ashe went on, the mud splashing him and the raw night air aggravating thedreariness of his thoughts. He tried to revert to the assurance of thedays before his mother's illness and to get again the strong belief in hisown destiny that had kept him at the money making and saving and had urgedhim to the efforts to rise above the level of the man who bred him. Hedidn't succeed. The feeling of age that had settled upon him in the midstof the people mourning over the body of his mother came back, and,turning, he went along the road toward the town, saying to himself: "Iwill go and talk to Mary Underwood."
While he waited on the veranda for Mary to open the door, he decided thatafter all a marriage with her might lead to happiness. The half spiritual,half physical love of woman that is the glory and mystery of youth wasgone from him. He thought that if he could only drive from her presencethe fear of the faces that had been coming and going in his own mind hewould, for his own part, be content to live his life as a worker and moneymaker, one without dreams.
Mary Underwood came to the door wearing the same heavy long coat she hadworn on that other night and taking her by the hand Sam led her to theedge of the veranda. He looked with content at the pine trees before thehouse, thinking that some benign influence must have guided the hand thatplanted them there to stand clothed and decent amid the barrenness of theland at the end of winter.
"What is it, boy?" asked the woman, and her voice was filled with anxiety.The maternal passion again glowing in her had for days coloured all herthoughts, and with all the ardour of an intense nature she had thrownherself into her love of Sam. Thinking of him, she felt in fancy the pangsof birth, and in her bed at night relived with him his boyhood in the townand built again her plans for his future. In the day time she laughed atherself and said tenderly, "You are an old fool."
Brutally and frankly Sam told her of the thing he had heard on the stationplatform, looking past her at the pine trees and gripping the verandarail. From the dead land there came again the smell of the new growth asit had come to him on the road before the revelation at the railroadstation.
"Something kept telling me not to go away," he said. "It must have been inthe air--this thing. Already these evil crawling things were at work. Oh,if only all the world, like you and Telfer and some of the others here,had an appreciation of the sense of privacy."
Mary Underwood laughed quietly.
"I was more than half right when, in the old days, I dreamed of making youa man at work upon the things of the mind," she said. "The sense ofprivacy indeed! What a fellow you have become! John Telfer's method wasbetter than my own. He has given you the knack of saying things with aflourish."
Sam shook his head.
"Here is something that cannot be faced down with a laugh," he saidstoutly. "Here is something at you--it is tearing at you--it has got to bemet. Even now women are waking up in bed and turning the matter over intheir minds. To-morrow they will be at you again. There is but one way andwe must take it. You and I will have to marry."
Mary looked at the serious new lines of his face.
"What a proposal!" she cried.
On an impulse she began singing, her voice fine and strong running throughthe quiet night.
"He rode and he thought of her red, red lips,"
she sang, and laughed again.
"You should come like that," she said, and then, "you poor muddled boy.Don't you know that I am your new mother?" she added, taking hold of histwo arms and turning him about facing her. "Don't be absurd. I don't wanta husband or a lover. I want a son of my own and I have found him. Iadopted you here in this house that night when you came to me sick andcovered with mud. As for these women--away with them--I'll face them down--I did it once before and I'll do it again. Go to your city and make yourfight. Here in Caxton it is a woman's fight."
"It is horrible. You don't understand," Sam protested.
A grey, tired look came into Mary Underwood's face.
"I understand," she said. "I have been on that battlefield. It is to bewon only by silence and tireless waiting. Your very effort to help wouldmake the matter worse."
The woman and the tall boy, suddenly become a man, stood in thought. Shewas thinking of the end toward which her life was drifting. Howdifferently she had planned it. She thought of the college inMassachusetts and of the men and women walking under the elm trees there.
"But I have got me a son and I am going to keep him," she said aloud,putting her hand on Sam's arm.
Very serious and troubled, Sam went down the gravel path toward the road.He felt there was something cowardly in the part she had given him toplay, but he could see no alternative.
"After all," he reflected, "it is sensible--it is a woman's battle."
Half way to the road he stopped and, running back, caught her in his armsand gave her a great hug.
"Good-bye, little Mother," he cried and kissed her upon the lips.
And she, watching him as he went again down the gravel path, was overcomewith tenderness. She went to the back of the porch and leaning against thehouse put her head upon her arm. Then turning and smiling through hertears she called after him.
"Did you crack their heads hard, boy?" she asked.
* * * * *
From Mary's house Sam went to his own. On the gravel path an idea had cometo him. He went into the house and, sitting down at the kitchen table withpen and ink, began writing. In the sleeping room back of the parlour hecould hear Windy snoring. He wrote carefully, erasing and writing again.Then, drawing up a chair before the kitchen fire, he read over and overwhat he had written, and putting on his coat went through the dawn to thehouse of Tom Comstock, editor of the _Caxton Argus_, and roused him out ofbed.
"I'll run it on the front page, Sam, and it won't cost you anything,"Comstock promised. "But why run it? Let the matter drop."
"I shall just have time to pack and get the morning train for Chicago,"Sam thought.
Early the evening before, Telfer, Wildman, and Freedom Smith, at Valmore'ssuggestion, had made a visit to Hunter's jewelry store. For an hour theybargained, selected, rejected, and swore at the jeweller. When the choicewas made and the gift lay shining against white cotton in a box on thecounter Telfer made a speech.
"I will talk straight to that boy," he declared, laughing. "I am not goingto spend my time training his mind for money making and then have him failme. I shall tell him that if he doesn't make money in that Chicago I shallcome and take the watch from him."
Putting the gift into his pocket Telfer went out of the store and alongthe street to Eleanor's shop. He strutted through the display room andinto the workshop where Eleanor sat with a hat on her knee.
"What am I going to do, Eleanor?" he demanded, standing with legs spreadapart and frowning down upon her, "what am I going to do without Sam?"
A freckle-faced boy opened the shop door and threw a newspaper on thefloor. The boy had a ringing voice and quick brown eyes. Telfer went againthrough the display room, touching with his cane the posts upon which hungthe finished hats, and whistling. Standing before the shop, with the canehooked upon his arm, he rolled a cigarette and watched the boy runningfrom door to door along the street.
"I shall have to be adopting a new son," he said musingly.
After Sam left, Tom Comstock stood in his white nightgown and re-read thestatement just given him. He read it over and over, and then, laying it onthe kitchen table, filled and lighted a corncob pipe. A draft of wind blewinto the room under the kitchen door chilling his thin shanks so that hedrew his bare feet, one after the other, up behind the protective walls ofhis nightgown.
"On the night of my mother's death," ran the statement, "I sat in thekitchen of our house eating my supper when my father came in and beganshouting and talking loudly, disturbing my mother who was asleep. I put myhand at his throat and squeezed until I thought he was dead, and carriedhim around the house and threw him into the road. Then I ran to the houseof Mary Underwood, who was once my schoolteacher, and told her what I haddone. She took me home, awoke John Telfer, and then went to look for thebody of my father, who was not dead after all. John McPherson knows thisis true, if he can be made to tell the truth."
Tom Comstock shouted to his wife, a small nervous woman with red cheeks,who set up type in the shop, did her own housework, and gathered most ofthe news and advertising for _The Argus_.
"Ain't that a slasher?" he asked, handing her the statement Sam hadwritten.
"Well, it ought to stop the mean things they are saying about MaryUnderwood," she snapped. Then, taking the glasses from her nose, andlooking at Tom, who, while he did not find time to give her much help with_The Argus_, was the best checker player in Caxton and had once been to astate tournament of experts in that sport, she added, "Poor JaneMcPherson, to have had a son like Sam and no better father for him thanthat liar Windy. Choked him, eh? Well, if the men of this town had anyspunk they would finish the job."