Windy McPherson's Son

by Sherwood Anderson

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Book II - Chapter 1

For two years Sam lived the life of a travelling buyer, visiting towns inIndiana, Illinois, and Iowa, and making deals with men who, like FreedomSmith, bought the farmers' products. On Sundays he sat in chairs beforecountry hotels and walked in the streets of strange towns, or, gettingback to the city at the week end, went through the downtown streets andamong the crowds in the parks with young men he had met on the road. Fromtime to time he went to Caxton and sat for an hour with the men inWildman's, stealing away later for an evening with Mary Underwood.

In the store he heard news of Windy, who was laying close siege to thefarmer's widow he later married, and who seldom appeared in Caxton. In thestore he saw the boy with freckles on his nose--the same John Telfer hadwatched running along Main Street on the night when he went to showEleanor the gold watch bought for Sam and who sat now on the crackerbarrel in the store and later went with Telfer to dodge the swinging caneand listen to the eloquence poured out on the night air. Telfer had notgot the chance to stand with a crowd about him at the railroad station andmake a parting speech to Sam, and in secret he resented the loss of thatopportunity. After turning the matter over in his mind and thinking ofmany fine flourishes and ringing periods to give colour to the speech hehad been compelled to send the gift by mail. And Sam, while the gift hadtouched him deeply and had brought back to his mind the essential solidgoodness of the town amid the cornfields, so that he lost much of thebitterness aroused by the attack upon Mary Underwood, had been able tomake but a tame and halting reply to the four. In his room in Chicago hehad spent an evening writing and rewriting, putting in and taking outflourishes, and had ended by sending a brief line of thanks.

Valmore, whose affection for the boy had been a slow growth and who, nowthat he was gone, missed him more than the others, once spoke to FreedomSmith of the change that had come over young McPherson. Freedom sat in thewide old phaeton in the road before Valmore's shop as the blacksmithwalked around the grey mare, lifting her feet and looking at the shoes.

"What has happened to Sam--he has changed so much?" he asked, dropping afoot of the mare and coming to lean upon the front wheel. "Already thecity has changed him," he added regretfully.

Freedom took a match from his pocket and lighted the short black pipe.

"He bites off his words," continued Valmore; "he sits for an hour in thestore and then goes away, and doesn't come back to say good-bye when heleaves town. What has got into him?"

Freedom gathered up the reins and spat over the dashboard into the dust ofthe road. A dog idling in the street jumped as though a stone had beenhurled at him.

"If you had something he wanted to buy you would find he talked allright," he exploded. "He skins me out of my eyeteeth every time he comesto town and then gives me a cigar wrapped in tinfoil to make me like it."

* * * * *

For some months after his hurried departure from Caxton the changing,hurrying life of the city profoundly interested the tall strong boy fromthe Iowa village, who had the cold, quick business stroke of the moneymaker combined with an unusually active interest in the problems of lifeand of living. Instinctively he looked upon business as a great game inwhich many men sat, and in which the capable, quiet ones waited patientlyuntil a certain moment and then pounced upon what they would possess. Withthe quickness and accuracy of a beast at the kill they pounced and Samfelt that he had that stroke, and in his deals with country buyers used itruthlessly. He knew the vague, uncertain look that came into the eyes ofunsuccessful business men at critical moments and watched for it and tookadvantage of it as a successful prize fighter watches for a similar vague,uncertain look in the eyes of an opponent.

He had found his work, and had the assurance and the confidence that comeswith that discovery. The stroke that he saw in the hand of the successfulbusiness men about him is the stroke also of the master painter,scientist, actor, singer, prize fighter. It was the hand of Whistler,Balzac, Agassiz, and Terry McGovern. The sense of it had been in him whenas a boy he watched the totals grow in the yellow bankbook, and now andthen he recognised it in Telfer talking on a country road. In the citywhere men of wealth and power in affairs rubbed elbows with him in thestreet cars and walked past him in hotel lobbies he watched and waitedsaying to himself, "I also will be such a one."

Sam had not lost the vision that had come to him when as a boy he walkedon the road and listened to the talk of Telfer, but he now thought ofhimself as one who had not only a hunger for achievement but also aknowledge of where to look for it. At times he had stirring dreams of vastwork to be done by his hand that made the blood race in him, but for themost part he went his way quietly, making friends, looking about him,keeping his mind busy with his own thoughts, making deals.

During his first year in the city he lived in the house of an ex-Caxtonfamily named Pergrin that had been in Chicago for several years, but thatstill continued to send its members, one at a time, to spend summervacations in the Iowa village. To these people he carried letters handedhim during the month after his mother's death, and letters regarding himhad come to them from Caxton. In the house, where eight people sat down todinner, only three besides himself were Caxton-bred, but thoughts and talkof the town pervaded the house and crept into every conversation.

"I was thinking of old John Moore to-day--does he still drive that team ofblack ponies?" the housekeeping sister, a mild-looking woman of thirty,would ask of Sam at the dinner table, breaking in on a conversation ofbaseball, or a tale by one of the boarders of a new office building to beerected in the Loop.

"No, he don't," Jake Pergrin, a fat bachelor of forty who was foreman in amachine shop and the man of the house, would answer. So long had Jake beenthe final authority in the house on affairs touching Caxton that he lookedupon Sam as an intruder. "John told me last summer when I was home that heintended to sell the blacks and buy mules," he would add, looking at theyouth challengingly.

The Pergrin family was in fact upon foreign soil. Living amid the roar andbustle of Chicago's vast west side, it still turned with hungry hearttoward the place of corn and of steers, and wished that work for Jake, itsmainstay, could be found in that paradise.

Jake Pergrin, a bald-headed man with a paunch, stubby iron-grey moustache,and a dark line of machine oil encircling his finger nails so that theystood forth separately like formal flower beds at the edge of a lawn,worked industriously from Monday morning until Saturday night, going tobed at nine o'clock, and until that hour wandering, whistling, from roomto room through the house, in a pair of worn carpet slippers, or sittingin his room practising on a violin. On Saturday evening, the habits formedin his Caxton days being strong in him, he came home with his pay in hispocket, settled with the two sisters for the week's living, sat down todinner neatly shaved and combed, and then disappeared upon the troubledwaters of the town. Late on Sunday evening he re-appeared, with emptypockets, unsteady step, blood-shot eyes, and a noisy attempt at selfpossessed unconcern, to hurry upstairs and crawl into bed in preparationfor another week of toil and respectability. The man had a certainRabelaisian sense of humour and kept score of the new ladies met on hisweekly flights by pencil marks upon his bedroom wall. He once took Samupstairs to show his record. A row of them ran half around the room.

Besides the bachelor there was a sister, a tall gaunt woman of thirty-fivewho taught school, and the housekeeper, thirty, mild, and blessed with aremarkably sweet speaking voice. Then there was a medical student in thefront room, Sam in an alcove off the hall, a grey-haired womanstenographer, whom Jake called Marie Antoinette, and a buyer from awholesale dry-goods house, with a vivacious, fun-loving little Southernwife.

The women in the Pergrin house seemed to Sam tremendously concerned abouttheir health and each evening talked of the matter, he thought, more thanhis mother had talked during her illness. While Sam lived with them theywere all under the influence of a strange sort of faith healer and tookwhat they called "Health Suggestion" treatments. Twice each week the faithhealer came to the house, laid his hands upon their backs and took theirmoney. The treatment afforded Jake a never-ending source of amusement andin the evening he went through the house putting his hands upon the backsof the women and demanding money from them, but the dry-goods buyer'swife, who for years had coughed at night, slept peacefully after someweeks of the treatment and the cough did not return while Sam remained inthe house.

In the house Sam had a standing. Glowing tales of his shrewdness inbusiness, his untiring industry, and the size of his bank account, hadpreceded him from Caxton, and these tales the Pergrins, in their loyaltyto the town and to all the products of the town, did not allow to shrinkin the re-telling. The housekeeping sister, a kindly woman, became fond ofSam, and in his absence would boast of him to chance callers or to theboarders gathered in the living room in the evening. She it was who laidthe foundation of the medical student's belief that Sam was a kind ofgenius in money matters, a belief that enabled him later to make asuccessful assault upon a legacy which came to that young man.

Frank Eckardt, the medical student, Sam took as a friend. On Sundayafternoons they went to walk in the streets, or, taking two girl friendsof Frank's, who were also students at the medical school, on their arms,they went to the park and sat upon benches under the trees.

For one of these young women Sam conceived a regard that approachedtenderness. Sunday after Sunday he spent with her, and once, walkingthrough the park on an evening in the late fall, the dry brown leavesrustling under their feet and the sun going down in red splendour beforetheir eyes, he took her hand and walked in silence, feeling tremendouslyalive and vital as he had felt on that other night walking under the treesof Caxton with the dark-skinned daughter of banker Walker.

That nothing came of the affair and that after a time he did not see thegirl again was due, he thought, to his own growing interest in moneymaking and to the fact that there was in her, as in Frank Eckardt, a blinddevotion to something that he could not himself understand.

Once he had a talk with Eckardt of the matter. "She is fine and purposefullike a woman I knew in my home town," he said, thinking of Eleanor Telfer,"but she will not talk to me of her work as sometimes she talks to you. Iwant her to talk. There is something about her that I do not understandand that I want to understand. I think that she likes me and once or twiceI have thought she would not greatly mind my making love to her, but I donot understand her just the same."

One day in the office of the company for which he worked Sam becameacquainted with a young advertising man named Jack Prince, a brisk, verymuch alive young fellow who made money rapidly, spent it lavishly, and hadfriends and acquaintances in every office, every hotel lobby, every barroom and restaurant in the down-town section of the city. The chanceacquaintance rapidly grew into friendship. The clever, witty Prince made akind of hero of Sam, admiring his reserve and good sense and boasting ofhim far and wide through the town. With Prince, Sam occasionally went onmild carouses, and, once, in the midst of thousands of people sittingabout tables and drinking beer at the Coliseum on Wabash Avenue, he andPrince got into a fight with two waiters, Prince declaring he had beencheated and Sam, although he thought his friend in the wrong, striking outwith his fist and dragging Prince through the door and into a passingstreet car in time to avoid a rush of other waiters hurrying to the aid ofthe one who lay dazed and sputtering on the sawdust floor.

After these evenings of carousal, carried on with Jack Prince and withyoung men met on trains and about country hotels, Sam spent hour afterhour walking about town absorbed in his own thoughts and getting his ownimpressions of what he saw. In the affairs with the young men he played,for the most part, a passive rle, going with them from place to place anddrinking until they became loud and boisterous, or morose and quarrelsome,and then slipping away to his own room, amused or irritated as thecircumstances, or the temperament of his companions, had made or marredthe joviality of the evening. On his nights alone, he put his hands intohis pockets and walked for endless miles through the lighted streets,getting in a dim way a realisation of the hugeness of life. All of thefaces going past him, the women in their furs, the young men with cigarsin their mouths going to the theatres, the bald old men with watery eyes,the boys with bundles of newspapers under their arms, and the slimprostitutes lurking in the hallways, should have interested him deeply. Inhis youth, and with the pride of sleeping power in him, he saw them onlyas so many individuals that might some day test their ability against hisown. And if he peered at them closely and marked down face after face inthe crowds it was as a sitter in the great game of business that helooked, exercising his mind by imagining this or that one arrayed againsthim in deals, and planning the method by which he would win in theimaginary struggle.

There was at that time in Chicago a place, to be reached by a bridge abovethe Illinois Central Railroad track, that Sam sometimes visited on stormynights to watch the lake lashed by the wind. Great masses of water movingswiftly and silently broke with a roar against wooden piles, backed byhills of stone and earth, and the spray from the broken waves fell uponSam's face and on winter nights froze on his coat. He had learned tosmoke, and leaning upon the railing of the bridge would stand for hourswith a pipe in his mouth looking at the moving water, filled with awe andadmiration of the silent power of it.

One night in September, when he was walking alone in the streets, anincident happened that showed him also a silent power within himself, apower that startled and for the moment frightened him. Walking into alittle street back of Dearborn, he was suddenly aware of the faces ofwomen looking out at him through small square windows cut in the fronts ofthe houses. Here and there, before and behind him, were the faces; voicescalled, smiles invited, hands beckoned. Up and down the street went menlooking at the sidewalk, their coats turned up about their necks, theirhats pulled down over their eyes. They looked at the faces of the womenpressed against the little squares of glass and then, turning, suddenly,sprang in at the doors of the houses as if pursued. Among the walkers onthe sidewalk were old men, men in shabby coats whose feet scuffled as theyhurried along, and young boys with the pink of virtue in their cheeks. Inthe air was lust, heavy and hideous. It got into Sam's brain and he stoodhesitating and uncertain, startled, nerveless, afraid. He remembered astory he had once heard from John Telfer, a story of the disease and deaththat lurks in the little side streets of cities, and ran into Van BurenStreet and from that into lighted State. He climbed up the stairway of theelevated railroad and jumping on the first train went away south to walkfor hours on a gravel roadway at the edge of the lake in Jackson Park. Thewind from the lake and the laughter and talk of people passing under thelights cooled the fever in him, as once it had been cooled by theeloquence of John Telfer, walking on the road near Caxton, and with hisvoice marshalling the armies of the standing corn.

Into Sam's mind came a picture of the cold, silent water moving in greatmasses under the night sky and he thought that in the world of men therewas a force as resistless, as little understood, as little talked of,moving always forward, silent, powerful--the force of sex. He wondered howthe force would be broken in his own case, against what breakwater itwould spend itself. At midnight, he went home across the city and creptinto his alcove in the Pergrin house, puzzled and for the time utterlytired. In his bed, he turned his face to the wall and resolutely closinghis eyes tried to sleep. "There are things not to be understood," he toldhimself. "To live decently is a matter of good sense. I will keep thinkingof what I want to do and not go into such a place again."

One day, when he had been in Chicago two years, there happened an incidentof another sort, an incident so grotesque, so Pan-like, so full of youth,that for days after it happened he thought of it with delight, and walkedin the streets or sat in a passenger train laughing joyfully at theremembrance of some new detail of the affair.

Sam, who was the son of Windy McPherson and who had more than onceruthlessly condemned all men who put liquor into their mouths, got drunk,and for eighteen hours went shouting poetry, singing songs, and yelling atthe stars like a wood god on the bend.

Late on an afternoon in the early spring he sat with Jack Prince inDeJonge's restaurant in Monroe Street. Prince, his watch lying before himon the table and the thin stem of a wine glass between his fingers, talkedto Sam of the man for whom they had been waiting a half hour.

"He will be late, of course," he exclaimed, refilling Sam's glass. "Theman was never on time in his life. To keep an appointment promptly wouldtake something from him. It would be like the bloom of youth gone from thecheeks of a maiden."

Sam had already seen the man for whom they waited. He was thirty-five,small and narrow-shouldered, with a little wrinkled face, a huge nose, anda pair of eyeglasses that hooked over his ears. Sam had seen him in aMichigan Avenue club with Prince solemnly pitching silver dollars at achalk mark on the floor with a group of serious, solid-looking old men.

"They are the crowd that have just put through the big deal in Kansas oilstock and the little one is Morris, who handled the publicity for them,"Prince had explained.

Later, when they were walking down Michigan Avenue, Prince talked atlength of Morris, whom he admired immensely. "He is the best advertisingand publicity man in America," he declared. "He isn't a four-flusher, as Iam, and does not make as much money, but he can take another man's ideasand express them so simply and forcibly that they tell the man's storybetter than he knew it himself. And that's all there is to advertising."

He began laughing.

"It is funny to think of it. Tom Morris will do a job of work and the manfor whom he does it will swear that he did it himself, that every patphrase on the printed page Tom has turned out, is one of his own. He willhowl like a beast at paying Tom's bill, and then the next time he will tryto do the job himself and make a hopeless muddle of it so that he has tosend for Tom only to see the trick done over again like shelling corn offthe cob. The best men in Chicago send for him."

Into the restaurant came Tom Morris bearing under his arm a hugepasteboard portfolio. He seemed hurried and nervous. "I am on my way tothe office of the International Biscuit Turning Machine Company," heexplained to Prince. "I can't stop at all. I have here the layout of acircular designed to push on to the market some more of that common stockof theirs that hasn't paid a dividend for ten years."

Thrusting out his hand, Prince dragged Morris into a chair. "Never mindthe Biscuit Machine people and their stock," he commanded; "they willalways have common stock to sell. It is inexhaustible. I want you to meetMcPherson here who will some day have something big for you to help himwith."

Morris reached across the table and took Sam's hand; his own was small andsoft like that of a woman. "I am worked to death," he complained; "I havemy eye on a chicken farm in Indiana. I am going down there to live."

For an hour the three men sat in the restaurant while Prince talked of aplace in Wisconsin where the fish should be biting. "A man has told me of

the place twenty times," he declared; "I am sure I could find it on arailroad folder. I have never been fishing nor have you, and Sam herecomes from a place to which they carry water in wagons over the plains."

The little man who had been drinking copiously of the wine looked fromPrince to Sam. From time to time he took off his glasses and wiped themwith a handkerchief. "I don't understand your being in such society," heannounced; "you have the solid, substantial look of a bucket-shop man.Prince here will get nowhere. He is honest, sells wind and his charmingsociety, and spends the money that he gets, instead of marrying andputting it in his wife's name."

Prince arose. "It is useless to waste time in persiflage," he began andthen turning to Sam, "There is a place in Wisconsin," he said uncertainly.

Morris picked up the portfolio and with a grotesque effort at steadinessstarted for the door followed by Prince and Sam walking with waveringsteps. In the street Prince took the portfolio out of the little man'shand. "Let your mother carry it, Tommy," he said, shaking his finger underMorris's nose. He began singing a lullaby. "When the bough bends thecradle will fall."

The three men walked out of Monroe and into State Street, Sam's headfeeling strangely light. The buildings along the street reeled against thesky. A sudden fierce longing for wild adventure seized him. On a cornerMorris stopped, took the handkerchief from his pocket and again wiped hisglasses. "I want to be sure that I see clearly," he said; "it seems to methat in the bottom of that last glass of wine I saw three of us in a cabwith a basket of life oil on the seat between us going to the station tocatch the train for that place Jack's friend told fish lies about."

The next eighteen hours opened up a new world to Sam. With the fumes ofliquor rising in his brain, he rode for two hours on a train, tramped inthe darkness along dusty roads and, building a bonfire in a woods, dancedin the light of it upon the grass, holding the hands of Prince and thelittle man with the wrinkled face. Solemnly he stood upon a stump at theedge of a wheatfield and recited Poe's "Helen," taking on the voice, thegestures and even the habit of spreading his legs apart, of John Telfer.And then overdoing the last, he sat down suddenly on the stump, andMorris, coming forward with a bottle in his hand said, "Fill the lamp,man--the light of reason has gone out."

From the bonfire in the woods and Sam's recital from the stump, the threefriends emerged again upon the road, and a belated farmer driving homehalf asleep on the seat of his wagon caught their attention. With theskill of an Indian boy the diminutive Morris sprang upon the wagon andthrust a ten dollar bill into the farmer's hand. "Lead us, O man of thesoil!" he shouted, "Lead us to a gilded palace of sin! Take us to asaloon! The life oil gets low in the can!"

Beyond the long, jolting ride in the wagon Sam never became quite clear.In his mind ran vague notions of a wild carousal in a country tavern, ofhimself acting as bartender, and a huge red-faced woman rushing here andthere under the direction of a tiny man, dragging reluctant rustics to thebar and commanding them to keep on drinking the beer that Sam drew untilthe last of the ten dollars given to the man of the wagon should have goneinto her cash drawer. Also, he thought that Jack Prince had put a chairupon the bar and that he sat on it explaining to the hurrying drawer ofbeer that although the Egyptian kings had built great pyramids tocelebrate themselves they never built anything more gigantic than the jagTom Morris was building among the farm hands in the room.

Later Sam thought that he and Jack Prince tried to sleep under a pile ofgrain sacks in a shed and that Morris came to them weeping because everyone in the world was asleep and most of them lying under tables.

And then, his head clearing, Sam found himself with the two others walkingagain upon the dusty road in the dawn and singing songs.

On the train, with the help of a Negro porter, the three men tried toefface the dust and the stains of the wild night. The pasteboard portfoliocontaining the circular for the Biscuit Machine Company was still underJack Prince's arm and the little man, wiping and re-wiping his glasses,peered at Sam.

"Did you come with us or are you a child we have adopted here in theseparts?" he asked.

Return to the Windy McPherson's Son Summary Return to the Sherwood Anderson Library

Anton Chekhov
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Susan Glaspell
Mark Twain
Edgar Allan Poe
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Herman Melville
Stephen Leacock
Kate Chopin
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson