Windy McPherson's Son

by Sherwood Anderson

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Book II - Chapter 3

Sam McPherson, who stood in the shops among the thousands of employees ofthe Rainey Arms Company, who looked with unseeing eyes at the faces of themen intent upon the operation of machines and saw in them but so many aidsto the ambitious projects stirring in his brain, who, while yet a boy, hadbecause of the quality of daring in him, combined with a gift ofacquisitiveness, become a master, who was untrained, uneducated, knowingnothing of the history of industry or of social effort, walked out of theoffices of his company and along through the crowded streets to the newapartment he had taken on Michigan Avenue. It was Saturday evening at theend of a busy week and as he walked he thought of things he hadaccomplished during the week and made plans for the one to come. ThroughMadison Street he went and into State, seeing the crowds of men and women,boys and girls, clambering aboard the cable cars, massed upon thepavements, forming in groups, the groups breaking and reforming, and thewhole making a picture intense, confusing, awe-inspiring. As in the shopsamong the men workers, so here, also, walked the youth with unseeing eyes.He liked it all; the mass of people; the clerks in their cheap clothing;the old men with young girls on their arms going to dine in restaurants;the young man with a wistful look in his eyes waiting for his sweetheartin the shadow of the towering office building. The eager, straining rushof the whole, seemed no more to him than a kind of gigantic setting foraction; action controlled by a few quiet, capable men--of whom he intendedto be one--intent upon growth.

In State Street he stopped at a shop and buying a bunch of roses came outagain upon the crowded street. In the crowd before him walked a woman-tall, freewalking, with a great mass of reddish-brown hair on her head. Asshe passed through the crowd men stopped and looked back at her, theireyes ablaze with admiration. Seeing her, Sam sprang forward with a cry.

"Edith!" he called, and running forward thrust the roses into her hand."For Janet," he said, and lifting his hat walked beside her along State toVan Buren Street.

Leaving the woman at a corner Sam came into a region of cheap theatres anddingy hotels. Women spoke to him; young men in flashy overcoats and with apeculiar, assertive, animal swing to their shoulders loitered before thetheatres or in the doorways of the hotels; from an upstairs restaurantcame the voice of another young man singing a popular song of the street."There'll be a hot time in the old town to-night," sang the voice.

Over a cross street Sam went into Michigan Avenue, faced by a long narrowpark and beyond the railroad tracks by the piles of new earth where thecity was trying to regain its lake front. In the cross street, standing inthe shadow of the elevated railroad, he had passed a whining, intoxicatedold woman who lurched forward and put a hand upon his coat. Sam had flungher a quarter and passed on shrugging his shoulders. Here also he hadwalked with unseeing eyes; this too was a part of the gigantic machinewith which the quiet, competent men of growth worked.

From his new quarters in the top floor of the hotel facing the lake, Samwalked north along Michigan Avenue to a restaurant where Negro men wentnoiselessly about among white-clad tables, serving men and women whotalked and laughed under the shaded lamps had an assured, confident air.Passing in at the door of the restaurant, a wind, blowing over the citytoward the lake, brought the sound of a voice floating with it. "There'llbe a hot time in the old town to-night," again insisted the voice.

After dining Sam got on a grip car of the Wabash Avenue Cable, sitting onthe front seat and letting the panorama of the town roll up to him. Fromthe region of cheap theatres he passed through streets in which saloonsstood massed, one beside another, each with its wide garish doorway andits dimly lighted "Ladies' Entrance," and into a region of neat littlestores where women with baskets upon their arms stood by the counters andSam was reminded of Saturday nights in Caxton.

The two women, Edith and Janet Eberly, met through Jack Prince, to one ofwhom Sam had sent the roses at the hands of the other, and from whom hehad borrowed the six thousand dollars when he was new in the city, hadbeen in Chicago for five years when Sam came to know them. For all of thefive years they had lived in a two-story frame building that had been aresidence in Wabash Avenue near Thirty-ninth Street and that was now botha residence and a grocery store. The apartment upstairs, reached by astairway at the side of the grocery, had in the five years, and under thehand of Janet Eberly, become a thing of beauty, perfect in the simplicityand completeness of its appointment.

The two women were the daughters of a farmer who had lived in one of themiddle western states facing the Mississippi River. Their grandfather hadbeen a noted man in the state, having been one of its first governors andlater serving it in the senate in Washington. There was a county and agood-sized town named for him and he had once been talked of as a vicepresidential possibility but had died at Washington before the conventionat which his name was to have been put forward. His one son, a youth ofgreat promise, went to West Point and served brilliantly through the CivilWar, afterward commanding several western army posts and marrying thedaughter of another army man. His wife, an army belle, died after havingborne him the two daughters.

After the death of his wife Major Eberly began drinking, and to get awayfrom the habit and from the army atmosphere where he had lived with hiswife, whom he loved intensely, took the two little girls and returned tohis home state to settle on a farm.

About the county where the two girls grew to womanhood, their father,Major Eberly, got the name of a character, seeing people but seldom andtreating rudely the friendly advances of his farmer neighbours. He wouldsit in the house for days poring over books, of which he had a great many,and hundreds of which were now on open shelves in the apartment of the twogirls. These days of study, during which he would brook no intrusion, werefollowed by days of fierce industry during which he led team after team tothe field, ploughing or reaping day and night with no rest except to eat.

At the edge of the Eberly farm there was a little wooden country churchsurrounded by a hay field, and on Sunday mornings during the summer theex-army man was always to be found in the field, running some noisy,clattering agricultural implement up and down under the windows of thechurch and disturbing the worship of the country folk; in the winter hedrew a pile of logs there and went on Sunday mornings to split firewoodunder the church windows. While his daughters were small he was severaltimes haled into court and fined for cruel neglect of his animals. Once helocked a great herd of fine sheep in a shed and went into the house andstayed for days intent upon his books so that many of them sufferedcruelly for want of food and water. When he was taken into court andfined, half the county came to the trial and gloated over his humiliation.

To the two girls the father was neither cruel nor kind, leaving themlargely to themselves but giving them no money, so that they went about indresses made over from those of the mother, that lay piled in trunks inthe attic. When they were small, an old Negro woman, an ex-servant of thearmy belle, lived with and mothered them, but when Edith was a girl of tenthis woman went off home to Tennessee, so that the girls were thrown ontheir own resources and ran the house in their own way.

Janet Eberly was, at the beginning of her friendship with Sam, a slightwoman of twenty-seven with a small expressive face, quick nervous fingers,black piercing eyes, black hair and a way of becoming so absorbed in theexposition of a book or the rush of a conversation that her little intenseface became transfigured and her quick fingers clutched the arm of herlistener while her eyes looked into his and she lost all consciousness ofhis presence or of the opinions he may have expressed. She was a cripple,having fallen from the loft of a barn in her youth injuring her back sothat she sat all day in a specially made reclining wheeled chair.

Edith was a stenographer, working in the office of a publisher down town,and Janet trimmed hats for a milliner a few doors down the street from thehouse in which they lived. In his will the father left the money from thesale of the farm to Janet, and Sam used it, insuring his life for tenthousand dollars in her name while it was in his possession and handlingit with a caution entirely absent from his operations with the money ofthe medical student. "Take it and make money for me," the little woman hadsaid impulsively one evening shortly after the beginning of theiracquaintance and after Jack Prince had been talking flamboyantly of Sam'sability in affairs. "What is the good of having a talent if you do not useit to benefit those who haven't it?"

Janet Eberly was an intellect. She disregarded all the usual womanlypoints of view and had an attitude of her own toward life and people. In away she had understood her hard-driven, grey-haired father and during thetime of her great physical suffering they had built up a kind ofunderstanding and affection for each other. After his death she wore aminiature of him, made in his boyhood, on a chain about her neck. When Sammet her the two immediately became close friends, sitting for hours intalk and coming to look forward with great pleasure to the evenings spenttogether.

In the Eberly household Sam McPherson was a benefactor, a wonder-worker.In his hands the six thousand dollars was bringing two thousand a yearinto the house and adding immeasurably to the air of comfort and goodliving that prevailed there. To Janet, who managed the house, he wasguide, counsellor, and something more than friend.

Of the two women it was the strong, vigorous Edith, with the reddish-brownhair and the air of physical completeness that made men stop to look ather on the street, who first became Sam's friend.

Edith Eberly was strong of body, given to quick flashes of anger, stupidintellectually and hungry to the roots of her for wealth and a place inthe world. She had heard, through Jack Prince, of Sam's money making andof his ability and prospects and, for a time, had designs upon hisaffections. Several times when they were alone together she gave his handa characteristically impulsive squeeze and once upon the stairway besidethe grocery store offered him her lips to kiss. Later there sprang upbetween her and Jack Prince a passionate love affair, dropped finally byPrince through fear of her violent fits of anger. After Sam had met JanetEberly and had become her loyal friend and henchman all show of affectionor even of interest between him and Edith was at an end and the kiss uponthe stairs was forgotten.

* * * * *

Going up the stairway after the ride in the cable car Sam stood besideJanet's wheel chair in the room at the front of the apartment facingWabash Avenue. The chair was by the window and faced an open coal fire ina grate she had had built into the wall of the house. Outside, through anopen arched doorway, Edith moved noiselessly about taking dishes from alittle table. He knew that after a time Jack Prince would come and takeher to the theatre, leaving Janet and him to finish their talk.

Sam lighted his pipe and between puffs began talking, making a statementthat he knew would arouse her, and Janet, putting her hand impulsively onhis shoulder, began tearing the statement to bits.

"You talk!" she broke out. "Books are not full of pretence and lies; youbusiness men are--you and Jack Prince. What do you know of books? They arethe most wonderful things in the world. Men sit writing them and forget tolie, but you business men never forget. You and books! You haven't readbooks, not real ones. Didn't my father know; didn't he save himself frominsanity through books? Do I not, sitting here, get the real feel of themovement of the world through the books that men write? Suppose I sawthose men. They would swagger and strut and take themselves seriously justlike you or Jack or the grocer down stairs. You think you know what'sgoing on in the world. You think you are doing things, you Chicago men ofmoney and action and growth. You are blind, all blind."

The little woman, a light, half scorn, half amusement in her eyes, leanedforward and ran her fingers through Sam's hair, laughing down into theastonished face he turned up to her.

"Oh, I'm not afraid, in spite of what Edith and Jack Prince say of you,"she went on impulsively. "I like you all right and if I were a well womanI should make love to you and marry you and then see to it there wassomething in this world for you besides money and tall buildings and menand machines that make guns."

Sam grinned. "You are like your father, driving the mowing machine up anddown under the church windows on Sunday mornings," he declared; "you thinkyou could remake the world by shaking your fist at it. I should like to goand see you fined in a court room for starving sheep."

Janet, closing her eyes and lying back in her chair, laughed with delightand declared that they would have a splendid quarrelsome evening.

After Edith had gone out, Sam sat through the evening with Janet,listening to her exposition of life and what she thought it should mean toa strong capable fellow like himself, as he had been listening ever sincetheir acquaintanceship began. In the talk, and in the many talks they hadhad together, talks that rang in his ears for years, the little black-eyedwoman gave him a glimpse into a whole purposeful universe of thought andaction of which he had never dreamed, introducing him to a new world ofmen: methodical, hard-thinking Germans, emotional, dreaming Russians,analytical, courageous Norwegians, Spaniards and Italians with their senseof beauty, and blundering, hopeful Englishmen wanting so much and gettingso little; so that at the end of the evening he went out of her presencefeeling strangely small and insignificant against the great worldbackground she had drawn for him.

Sam did not understand Janet's point of view. It was all too new andforeign to everything life had taught him, and in his mind he fought herideas doggedly, clinging to his own concrete, practical thoughts andhopes, but on the train homeward bound, and in his own room later, heturned over and over in his mind the things she had said and tried in adim way to grasp the bigness of the conception of human life she had gotsitting in a wheel chair and looking down into Wabash Avenue.

Sam loved Janet Eberly. No word of that had ever passed between them andhe had seen her hand flash out and grasp the shoulder of Jack Prince whenshe was laying down to him some law of life as she saw it, as it had sooften shot out and grasped his own, but had she been able to spring out ofthe wheel chair he should have taken her hand and gone with her to theclergyman within the hour and in his heart he knew that she would havegone with him gladly.

Janet died suddenly during the second year of Sam's work for the guncompany without a direct declaration of affection from him, but during theyears when they were much together he thought of her as in a sense hiswife and when she died he was desolate, overdrinking night after night andwandering aimlessly through the deserted streets during hours when heshould have been asleep. She was the first woman who ever got hold of andstirred his manhood, and she awoke something in him that made it possiblefor him later to see life with a broadness and scope of vision that was nopart of the pushing, energetic young man of dollars and of industry whosat beside her wheeled chair during the evenings on Wabash Avenue.

After Janet's death, Sam did not continue his friendship with Edith, butturned over to her the ten thousand dollars to which the six thousand ofJanet's money had grown in his hands and did not see her again.

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

It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.