Windy McPherson's Son

by Sherwood Anderson

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Book II - Chapter 6

One evening, six weeks after the talk in the gathering darkness in JacksonPark, Sue Rainey and Sam McPherson sat on the deck of a Lake Michigansteamer watching the lights of Chicago blink out in the distance. They hadbeen married that afternoon in Colonel Tom's big house on the south side;and now they sat on the deck of the boat, being carried out into darkness,vowed to motherhood and to fatherhood, each more or less afraid of theother. They sat in silence, looking at the blinking lights and listeningto the low voices of their fellow passengers, also sitting in the chairsalong the deck or strolling leisurely about, and to the wash of the wateralong the sides of the boat, eager to break down a little reserve that thesolemnity of the marriage service had built up between them.

A picture floated in Sam's mind. He saw Sue, all in white, radiant andwonderful, coming toward him down a broad stairway, toward him, thenewsboy of Caxton, the smuggler of game, the roisterer, the greedymoneygetter. All during those six weeks he had been waiting for this hourwhen he should sit beside the little grey-clad figure, getting from herthe help he wanted in the reconstruction of his life. Without being ableto talk as he had thought of talking, he yet felt assured and easy in hismind. In the moment when she had come down the stairway he had been halfovercome by a feeling of intense shame, a return of the shame that hadswept over him that night when she had given her word and he had walkedhour after hour through the streets. It had seemed to him that from amongthe guests standing about should arise a voice crying, "Stop! Do not goon! Let me tell you of this fellow--this McPherson!" And then he had seenher holding to the arm of swaggering, pretentious Colonel Tom and he hadtaken her hand to become one with her, two curious, feverish, strangelydifferent human beings, taking a vow in the name of their God, with theflowers banked about them and the eyes of people upon them.

When Sam had gone to Colonel Tom the morning after that evening in JacksonPark, there had been a scene. The old gun maker had blustered and roaredand forbidden, pounding on his desk with his fist. When Sam remained cooland unimpressed, he had stormed out of the room slamming the door andshouting, "Upstart! Damned upstart!" and Sam had gone smiling back to hisdesk, mildly disappointed. "I told Sue he would say 'Ingrate,'" hethought, "I am losing my skill at guessing just what he will do and say."

The colonel's rage had been short-lived. Within a week he was boasting ofSam to chance callers as "the best business man in America," and in theface of a solemn promise given Sue was telling news of the approachingmarriage to every newspaper man he knew. Sam suspected him of secretlycalling on the telephone those newspapers whose representatives had notcrossed his trail.

During the six waiting weeks there had been little of love making betweenSue and Sam. They had talked instead, or, going into the country or to theparks, had walked under the trees consumed with a curious eager passion ofsuspense. The idea she had given him in the park grew in Sam's brain. Tolive for the young things that would presently come to them, to be simple,direct, and natural, like the trees or the beasts of the field, and thento have the native honesty of such a life illuminated and ennobled by amutual intelligent purpose to make their young something finer and betterthan the things in Nature by the intelligent use of their own good mindsand bodies. In the shops and on the streets the hurrying men and womentook on a new significance to him. He wondered what secret mighty purposemight be in their lives, and read a newspaper report of an engagement or amarriage with a little jump of the heart. He looked at the girls and thewomen at work over the typewriting machines in the office, withquestioning eyes, asking himself why they did not seek marriage openly anddeterminedly, and saw a healthy single woman as so much wasted material,as a machine for producing healthy new life standing idle and unused inthe great workshop of the universe. "Marriage is a port, a beginning, apoint of departure, from which men and women go forth upon the real voyageof life," he told Sue one evening as they walked in the park. "All thatgoes before is but a preparation, a building. The pains and the triumphsof all unmarried people are but the good oak planks being driven intoplace to make the vessel fit for the real voyage." Or, again, one nightwhen they were in a rowboat on the lagoon in the park and all about themin the darkness was the plash of oars in the water, the screams of excitedgirls, and the sound of voices calling, he let the boat float in againstthe shores of a little island and crept along the boat to kneel, with hishead in her lap and whisper, "It is not the love of a woman that grips me,Sue, but the love of life. I have had a peep into the great mystery. This--this is why we are here--this justifies us."

Now that she sat beside him, her shoulder against his own, being carriedaway with him into darkness and privacy, the personal side of his love forher ran through Sam like a flame and, turning, he drew her head down uponhis shoulder.

"Not yet, Sam," she whispered, "not with these hundreds of people sleepingand drinking and thinking and going about their affairs almost withintouch of our hands."

They got up and walked along the swaying deck. Out of the north the cleanwind called to them, the stars looked down upon them, and in the darknessin the bow of the boat they parted for the night silently, speechless withhappiness and with a dear, unmentioned secret between them.

At dawn they landed at a little lumbering town, where boat, blankets, andcamping kit had gone before. A river flowed down out of the woods passingthe town, going under a bridge and turning the wheel of a sawmill thatstood by the shore of the river facing the lake. The clean sweet smell ofthe new-cut logs, the song of the saws, the roar of the water tumblingover a dam, the cries of the blue-shirted lumbermen working among thefloating logs above the dam, filled the morning air, and above the song ofthe saws sang another song, a breathless, waiting song, the song of loveand of life singing in the hearts of husband and wife.

In a little roughly-built lumberman's hotel they ate breakfast in a roomoverlooking the river. The proprietor of the hotel, a large red-facedwoman in a clean calico dress, was expecting them and, having served thebreakfast, went out of the room grinning good naturedly and closing thedoor behind her. Through the open window they looked at the cold swiftlyflowing river and at a freckled-faced boy who carried packages wrapped inblankets and put them in a long canoe tied to a little wharf beside thehotel. They ate and sat staring at each other like two strange boys,saying nothing. Sam ate little. His heart pounded in his breast.

On the river he sank his paddle deep into the water, pulling against thecurrent. During the six weeks' waiting in Chicago she had taught him theessentials of the canoeist's art and, now, as he shot the canoe under thebridge and around a bend of the river out of sight of the town, asuperhuman strength seemed in his arms and back. Before him in the prow ofthe boat sat Sue, her straight muscular little back bending andstraightening again. By his side rose towering hills clothed with pinetrees, and piles of cut logs lay at the foot of the hills along the shore.

At sunset they landed in a little cleared space at the foot of a hill andon the top of the hill, with the wind blowing across it, they made theirfirst camp. Sam brought boughs and spread them, lapped like feathers inthe wings of a bird, and carried blankets up the hill, while Sue, at thefoot, near the overturned boat, built a fire and prepared their firstcooked meal out of doors. In the failing light, Sue got out her rifle andgave Sam his first lesson in marksmanship, his awkwardness making thelesson half a jest. And then, in the soft stillness of the young night,with the first stars coming into the sky and the clean cold wind blowinginto their faces, they went arm in arm up the hill under the trees towhere the tops of the trees rolled and pitched like the stormy waters of agreat sea before their eyes, and lay down together for their first longtender embrace.

There is a special kind of fine pleasure in getting one's first knowledgeof the great outdoors in the company of a woman a man loves and to havethat woman an expert, with a keen appetite for the life, adds point andflavour to the experience. In his busy striving, nickel-seeking boyhood inthe town surrounded by hot cornfields, and in his young manhood ofscheming and money hunger in the city, Sam had not thought of vacationsand resting places. He had walked on country roads with John Telfer andMary Underwood, listening to their talk, absorbing their ideas, blind anddeaf to the little life in the grass, in the leafy branches of the treesand in the air about him. In clubs, and about hotels and barrooms in thecity, he had heard men talk of life in the open, and had said to himself,"When my time comes I will taste these things."

And now he did taste them, lying on his back on the grass along the river,floating down quiet little side streams in the moonlight, listening to thenight call of birds, or watching the flight of frightened wild things ashe pushed the canoe into the quiet depths of the great forest about them.

At night, under the little tent they had brought, or beneath the blanketsunder the stars, he slept lightly, awakening often to look at Sue lyingbeside him. Perhaps the wind had blown a wisp of hair across her face andher breath played with it, tossing it about; perhaps just the quiet of herexpressive little face charmed and held him, so that he turned reluctantlyto sleep again thinking that he might, with pleasure, go on looking at herall night.

For Sue the days also passed lightly. She also awoke in the night and laylooking at the man sleeping beside her, and once she told Sam that when heawoke she feigned sleep dreading to rob him of the pleasure that she knewthese secret love passages gave to both.

They were not alone in those northern woods. Everywhere along the riversand on the shores of little lakes they found people, to Sam a new kind ofpeople, who dropped all the ordinary things of life, and ran away to thewoods and the streams to spend long happy months in the open. Hediscovered with surprise that these adventurers were men of modestfortunes, small manufacturers, skilled workingmen, retail merchants. Onewith whom he talked was a grocer from a town in Ohio, and when Sam askedhim if the coming to the woods with his family for an eight-weeks stay didnot endanger the success of his business he agreed with Sam that it did,nodding his head and laughing.

"But there would be a lot more danger in not leaving it," he said, "thedanger of having my boys grow up to be men without my having any real funwith them."

Among all of the people they met Sue passed with a sort of happy freedomthat confounded Sam, as he had formed a habit of thinking of her always asone shut within herself. Many of the people they saw she knew, and he cameto believe that she had chosen the place for their love making because sheadmired and held in high favour the lives of these people of the out-ofdoors and wanted her lover to be in some way like them. Out of thesolitude of the woods, along the shores of little lakes, they called toher as she passed, demanding that she come ashore and show her husband,and among them she sat talking of other seasons and of the inroads of thelumber men upon their paradise. "The Burnhams were this year on the shoresof Grant Lake, the two school teachers from Pittsburgh would come early inAugust, the Detroit man with the crippled son was building a cabin on theshores of Bone River."

Sam sat among them in silence, renewing constantly his admiration for thewonder of Sue's past life. She, the daughter of Colonel Tom, the womanrich in her own right, to have made her friends among these people; she,who had been pronounced an enigma by the young men of Chicago, to havebeen secretly all of these years the companion and fellow spirit of thesecampers by the lakes.

For six weeks they led a wandering, nomadic life in that half wild land,for Sue six weeks of tender love making, and of the expression of everythought and impulse of her fine nature, for Sam six weeks of readjustmentand freedom, during which he learned to sail a boat, to shoot, and to getthe fine taste of that life into his being.

And then one morning they came again to the little lumber town at themouth of the river and sat upon the pier waiting for the Chicago boat.They were bound once more into the world, and to that life together thatwas the foundation of their marriage and that was to be the end and aim oftheir two lives.

If Sam's life from boyhood had been, on the whole, barren and empty ofmany of the sweeter things, his life during the next year was strikinglyfull and complete. In the office he had ceased being the pushing upstarttramping on the toes of tradition and had become the son of Colonel Tom,the voter of Sue's big stock holdings, the practical, directing head andgenius of the destinies of the company. Jack Prince's loyalty had beenrewarded, and a huge advertising campaign made the name and merits of theRainey Arms Company's wares known to all reading Americans. The muzzles ofRainey-Whittaker rifles, revolvers, and shotguns looked threateningly outat one from the pages of the great popular magazines, brown fur-cladhunters did brave deeds before one's eyes, kneeling upon snow-topped cragspreparing to speed winged death to waiting mountain sheep; huge openmouthed bears rushed down from among the type at the top of the pages andseemed about to devour cool deliberate sportsmen who stood undaunted,swinging their trusty Rainey-Whittakers into place, and presidents,explorers, and Texas gun fighters loudly proclaimed the merits of RaineyWhittakers to a gun-buying world. It was for Sam and for Colonel Tom atime of big dividends, mechanical progress, and contentment.

Sam stayed diligently at work in the offices and in the shops, but keptwithin himself a reserve of strength and resolution that might have goneinto the work. With Sue he took up golf and morning rides on horseback,and with Sue he sat during the long evenings, reading aloud, absorbing herideas and her beliefs. Sometimes for days they were like two children,going off together to walk on country roads and to sleep in countryhotels. On these walks they went hand in hand or, bantering each other,raced down long hills to lie panting in the grass by the roadside whenthey were out of breath.

Near the end of the first year she told him one night of the realisationof their hopes and they sat through the evening alone by the fire in herroom, filled with the white wonder of it, renewing to each other all thefine vows of their early love-making days.

Sam never succeeded in recapturing the flavour of those days. Happiness isa thing so vague, so indefinite, so dependent on a thousand little turnsof the events of the day, that it only visits the most fortunate and atrare intervals, but Sam thought that he and Sue touched almost idealhappiness constantly during that time. There were weeks and even months oftheir first year together that later passed out of Sam's memory entirely,leaving only a sense of completeness and well being. He could remember,perhaps, a winter walk in the moonlight by the frozen lake, or a visitorwho sat and talked an evening away by their fire. But at the end he had tocome back to this: that something sang in his heart all day long and thatthe air tasted better, the stars shone more brightly, and the wind and therain and the hail upon the window panes sang more sweetly in his ears. Heand the woman who lived with him had wealth, position, and infinitedelight in the presence and the persons of each other, and a great ideaburned like a lamp in a window at the end of the road they travelled.

Meanwhile, in the world about him events came and went. A president waselected, the grey wolves were being hunted out of the Chicago citycouncil, and a strong rival to his company flourished in his own city. Inother days he would have been down upon this rival fighting, planning,working for its destruction. Now he sat at Sue's feet, dreaming andtalking to her of the brood that under their care should grow intowonderful reliant men and women. When Lewis, the talented sales manager ofthe Edwards Arms Company, got the business of a Kansas City jobber, hesmiled, wrote a sharp letter to his man in that territory, and went for anafternoon of golf with Sue. He had completely and wholly accepted Sue'sconception of life. "We have wealth for any emergency," he said tohimself, "and we will live our lives for service to mankind through thechildren that will presently come into our house."

After their marriage Sam found that Sue, for all her apparent coldness andindifference, had in Chicago, as in the northern woods, her own littlecircle of men and women. Some of these people Sam had met during theengagement, and now they began gradually coming to the house for anevening with the McPhersons. Sometimes there would be several of them fora quiet dinner at which there was much good talk, and after which Sue andSam sat for half the night, continuing some vein of thought brought tothem. Among the people who came to them, Sam shone resplendent. In someindefinable way he thought they paid court to him and the thoughtflattered him immensely. The college professor who had talked brilliantlythrough an evening turned to Sam for approval of his conclusions, a writerof tales of cowboy life asked him to help him over a difficulty in thestock market, and a tall black-haired painter paid him the rare complimentof repeating one of Sam's remarks as his own. It was as though, in spiteof their talk, they thought him the most gifted of them all, and for atime he was puzzled by their attitude. Jack Prince came, sat at one of thedinner parties, and explained.

"You have got what they want and cannot get--the money," he said.

After the evening when Sue told him the great news they gave a dinner. Itwas a sort of welcoming party for the coming guest, and, while the peopleat the table ate and talked, Sue and Sam, from opposite ends of the table,lifted high their glasses and, looking into each other's eyes, drank offthe health of him who was to come, the first of the great family, thefamily that was to have two lives lived for its success.

At the table sat Colonel Tom with his broad white shirt front, his white,pointed beard, and his grandiloquent flow of talk; at Sue's side sat JackPrince, pausing in his open admiration of Sue to cast an eye on thehandsome New York girl at Sam's end of the table or to puncture, with aflash of his terse common sense, some balloon of theory launched byWilliams of the University, who sat on the other side of Sue; the artist,who hoped for a commission to paint Colonel Tom, sat opposite himbewailing the dying out of fine old American families; and a serious-facedlittle German scientist sat beside Colonel Tom smiling as the artisttalked. The man, Sam fancied, was laughing at them both, perhaps at all ofthem. He did not mind. He looked at the scientist and at the other facesup and down the table and then at Sue. He saw her directing and leadingthe talk; he saw the play of muscles about her strong neck and the finefirmness of her straight little body, and his eyes grew moist and a lumpcame into his throat at the thought of the secret that lay between them.

And then his mind ran back to another night in Caxton when first he sateating among strange people at Freedom Smith's table. He saw again thetomboy girl and the sturdy boy and the lantern swinging in Freedom's handin the close little stable; he saw the absurd housepainter trying to blowthe bugle in the street; and the mother talking to her boy of deaththrough the summer evening; the fat foreman making the record of his loveson the walls of his room, the narrow-faced commission man rubbing hishands before a group of Greek hucksters, and then this--this home with itssafety and its secret high aim and him sitting there at the head of itall. Like the novelist, it seemed to him that he should admire and bow hishead before the romance of destiny. He thought his station, his wife, hiscountry, his end in life, when rightly seen, the very apex of life on theearth, and to him in his pride it seemed that he was in some way themaster and maker of it all.

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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.