Windy McPherson's Son

by Sherwood Anderson

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Book II - Chapter 7

Late one evening, some weeks after the McPhersons had given the dinnerparty in secret celebration of the future arrival of what was to be thefirst of the great family, they came together down the steps of a northside house to their waiting carriage. They had spent, Sam thought, adelightful evening. The Grovers were people of whose friendship he wasparticularly proud and since his marriage with Sue he had taken her oftenfor an evening to the house of the venerable surgeon. Doctor Grover was ascholar, a man of note in the medical world, and a rapid and absorbingtalker and thinker on any subject that aroused his interest. A certainyouthful enthusiasm in his outlook on life had attracted to him thedevotion of Sue, who, since meeting him through Sam, had counted him amarked addition to their little group of friends. His wife, a whitehaired, plump little woman, was, though apparently somewhat diffident, inreality his intellectual equal and companion, and Sue in a quiet way hadtaken her as a model in her own effort toward complete wifehood.

During the evening, spent in a rapid exchange of opinions and ideasbetween the two men, Sue had sat in silence. Once when he looked at herSam thought that he had surprised an annoyed look in her eyes and waspuzzled by it. During the remainder of the evening her eyes refused tomeet his and she looked instead at the floor, a flush mounting her cheeks.

At the door of the carriage Frank, Sue's coachman, stepped on the hem ofher gown and tore it. The tear was slight, the incident Sam thoughtentirely unavoidable, and as much due to a momentary clumsiness on thepart of Sue as to the awkwardness of Frank. The man had for years been aloyal servant and a devoted admirer of Sue's.

Sam laughed and taking Sue by the arm started to help her in at thecarriage door.

"Too much gown for an athlete," he said, pointlessly.

In a flash Sue turned and faced the coachman.

"Awkward brute," she said, through her teeth.

Sam stood on the sidewalk dumb with astonishment as Frank turned andclimbed to his seat without waiting to close the carriage door. He felt ashe might have felt had he, as a boy, heard profanity from the lips of hismother. The look in Sue's eyes as she turned them on Frank struck him likea blow and in a moment his whole carefully built-up conception of her andof her character had been shaken. He had an impulse to slam the carriagedoor after her and walk home.

They drove home in silence, Sam feeling as though he rode beside a new andstrange being. In the light of passing street lamps he could see her faceheld straight ahead and her eyes staring stonily at the curtain in front.He didn't want to reproach her; he wanted to take hold of her arm andshake her. "I should like to take the whip from in front of Frank's seatand give her a sound beating," he told himself.

At the house Sue jumped out of the carriage and, running past him in atthe door, closed it after her. Frank drove off toward the stables and whenSam went into the house he found Sue standing half way up the stairsleading to her room and waiting for him.

"I presume you do not know that you have been openly insulting me allevening," she cried. "Your beastly talk there at the Grovers--it wasunbearable--who are these women? Why parade your past life before me?"

Sam said nothing. He stood at the foot of the stairs and looked up at herand then, turning, just as she, running up the stairs, slammed the door ofher own room, he went into the library. A wood fire burned in the grateand he sat down and lighted his pipe. He did not try to think the thingout. He felt that he was in the presence of a lie and that the Sue who hadlived in his mind and in his affections no longer existed, that in herplace there was this other woman, this woman who had insulted her ownservant and had perverted and distorted the meaning of his talk during theevening.

Sitting by the fire filling and refilling his pipe, Sam went carefullyover every word, gesture, and incident of the evening at the Grovers andcould get hold of no part of it that he thought might in fairness serve asan excuse for the outburst. In the upper part of the house he could hearSue moving restlessly about and he had satisfaction in the thought thather mind was punishing her for so strange a seizure. He and Grover hadperhaps been somewhat carried away, he told himself; they had talked ofmarriage and its meaning and had both declared somewhat hotly against theidea that the loss of virginity in women was in any sense a bar tohonourable marriage, but he had said nothing that he thought could havebeen twisted into an insult to Sue or to Mrs. Grover. He had thought thetalk rather good and clearly thought out and had come out of the houseexhilarated and secretly preening himself with the thought that he hadtalked unusually forcefully and well. In any event what had been said hadbeen said before in Sue's presence and he thought that he could rememberher having, in the past, expressed similar ideas with enthusiasm.

Hour after hour he sat in the chair before the dying fire. He dozed andhis pipe dropped from his hand and fell upon the stone hearth. A kind ofdumb misery and anger was in him as over and over endlessly his mind keptreviewing the events of the evening.

"What has made her think she can do that to me?" he kept asking himself.

He remembered certain strange silences and hard looks from her eyes duringthe past weeks, silences and looks that in the light of the events of theevening became pregnant with meaning.

"She has a temper, a beast of a temper. Why shouldn't she have been squareand told me?" he asked himself.

The clock had struck three when the library door opened quietly and Sue,clad in a dressing gown through which the new roundness of her lithelittle figure was plainly apparent, came into the room. She ran across tohim and putting her head down on his knee wept bitterly.

"Oh, Sam!" she said, "I think I am going insane. I have been hating you asI have not hated since I was an evil-tempered child. A thing I workedyears to suppress in me has come back. I have been hating myself and thebaby. For days I have been fighting the feeling in me, and now it has comeout and perhaps you have begun hating me. Can you love me again? Will youever forget the meanness and the cheapness of it? You and poor innocentFrank--Oh, Sam, the devil was in me!"

Reaching down, Sam took her into his arms and cuddled her like a child. Astory he had heard of the vagaries of women at such times came back to himand was as a light illuminating the darkness of his mind.

"I understand now," he said. "It is a part of the burden you carry for usboth."

For some weeks after the outbreak at the carriage door events ran smoothlyin the McPherson house. One day as he stood in the stable door Frank cameround the corner of the house and, looking up sheepishly from under hiscap, said to Sam: "I understand about the missus. It is the baby coming.We have had four of them at our house," and Sam, nodding his head, turnedand began talking rapidly of his plans to replace the carriages withautomobiles.

But in the house, in spite of the clearing up of the matter of Sue'sugliness at the Grovers, a subtle change had taken place in therelationship of the two. Although they were together facing the first ofthe events that were to be like ports-of-call in the great voyage of theirlives, they were not facing it with the same mutual understanding andkindly tolerance with which they had faced smaller things in the past--adisagreement over the method of shooting a rapid in a river or theentertainment of an undesirable guest. The inclination to fits of temperloosens and disarranges all the little wires of life. The tune will notget itself played. One stands waiting for the discord, strained, missingthe harmony. It was so with Sam. He began feeling that he must keep acheck upon his tongue and that things of which they had talked with greatfreedom six months earlier now annoyed and irritated his wife when broughtinto an after-dinner discussion. To Sam, who, during his life with Sue,had learned the joy of free, open talk upon any subject that came into hismind and whose native interest in life and in the motives of men and womenhad blossomed in the large leisure and independence of the last year, thiswas trying. It was, he thought, like trying to hold free and opencommunion with the people of an orthodox family, and he fell into a habitof prolonged silences, a habit that later, he found, once formed,unbelievably hard to break.

One day in the office a situation arose that seemed to demand Sam'spresence in Boston on a certain date. For months he had been carrying on atrade war with some of the eastern manufacturers in his line and anopportunity for the settlement of the trouble in a way advantageous tohimself had, he thought, arisen. He wanted to handle the matter himselfand went home to explain to Sue. It was at the end of a day when nothinghad occurred to irritate her and she agreed with him that he should not becompelled to trust so important a matter to another.

"I am no child, Sam. I will take care of myself," she said, laughing.

Sam wired his New York man asking him to make the arrangements for themeeting in Boston and picked up a book to spend the evening reading aloudto her.

And then, coming home the next evening he found her in tears and when hetried to laugh away her fears she flew into a black fit of anger and ranout of the room.

Sam went to the 'phone and called his New York man, thinking to instructhim in regard to the conference in Boston and to give up his own plans forthe trip. When he had got his man on the wire, Sue, who had been standingoutside the door, rushed in and put her hand over the mouthpiece of the'phone.

"Sam! Sam!" she cried. "Do not give up the trip! Scold me! Beat me! Doanything, but do not let me go on making a fool of myself and destroyingyour peace of mind! I shall be miserable if you stay at home because ofwhat I have said!"

Over the 'phone came the insistent voice of Central and putting her handaside Sam talked to his man, letting the engagement stand and making somedetail of the conference answer as his need of calling.

Again Sue was repentant and again after her tears they sat before the fireuntil his train time, talking like lovers.

To Buffalo in the morning came a wire from her.

"Come back. Let business go. Cannot stand it," she had wired.

While he sat reading the wire the porter brought another.

"Please, Sam, pay no attention to any wire from me. I am all right andonly half a fool."

Sam was irritated. "It is deliberate pettiness and weakness," he thought,when an hour later the porter brought another wire demanding his immediatereturn. "The situation calls for drastic action and perhaps one goodstinging reproof will stop it for all time."

Going into the buffet car he wrote a long letter calling her attention tothe fact that a certain amount of freedom of action was due him, andsaying that he intended to act upon his own judgment in the future and notupon her impulses.

Having begun to write Sam went on and on. He was not interrupted, noshadow crossed the face of his beloved to tell him he was hurting and hesaid all that was in his mind to say. Little sharp reproofs that had comeinto his mind but that had been left unsaid now got themselves said andwhen he had dumped his overloaded mind into the letter he sealed andmailed it at a passing station.

Within an hour after the letter had left his hands Sam regretted it. Hethought of the little woman bearing the burden for them both, and thingsGrover had told him of the unhappiness of women in her condition came backto haunt his mind so that he wrote and sent off to her a wire asking hernot to read the letter he had mailed and assuring her that he would hurrythrough the Boston conference and get back to her at once.

When Sam returned he knew that in an evil moment Sue had opened and readthe letter sent from the train and was surprised and hurt by theknowledge. The act seemed like a betrayal. He said nothing, going abouthis work with a troubled mind and watching with growing anxiety heralternate fits of white anger and fearful remorse. He thought her growingworse daily and became alarmed for her health.

And, then, after a talk with Grover he began to spend more and more timewith her, forcing her to take with him daily, long walks in the open air.He tried valiantly to keep her mind fixed on cheerful things and went tobed happy and relieved when a day ended that did not bring a stormypassage between them.

There were days during that period when Sam thought himself near insanity.With a light in her grey eyes that was maddening Sue would take up someminor thing, a remark he had made or a passage he had quoted from somebook, and in a dead, level, complaining tone would talk of it until hishead reeled and his fingers ached from the gripping of his hands to keepcontrol of himself. After such a day he would steal off by himself and,walking rapidly, would try through pure physical fatigue to force his mindto give up the remembrance of the persistent, complaining voice. At timeshe would give way to fits of anger and strew impotent oaths along thesilent street, or, in another mood, would mumble and talk to himself,praying for strength and courage to keep his own head during the ordealthrough which he thought they were passing together. And when he returnedfrom such a walk and from such a struggle with himself it often occurredthat he would find her waiting in the arm chair before the fire in herroom, her mind clear and her little face wet with the tears of herrepentance.

And then the struggle ended. With Doctor Grover it had been arranged thatSue should be taken to the hospital for the great event, and they drovethere hurriedly one night through the quiet streets, the recurring painsgripping Sue and her hands clutching his. An exalted cheerfulness had holdof them. Face to face with the actual struggle for the new life Sue wastransfigured. Her voice rang with triumph and her eyes glistened.

"I am going to do it," she cried; "my black fear is gone. I shall give youa child--a man child. I shall succeed, my man Sam. You shall see. It willbe beautiful."

When the pain gripped she gripped at his hand, and a spasm of physicalsympathy ran through him. He felt helpless and ashamed of hishelplessness.

At the entrance to the hospital grounds she put her face down upon hisknees so that the hot tears ran through his hands.

"Poor, poor old Sam, it has been horrible for you."

At the hospital Sam walked up and down in the corridor through theswinging doors at the end of which she had been taken. Every vestige ofregret for the trying months now lying behind had passed, and he paced upand down the corridor feeling that he had come to one of those hugemoments when a man's brain, his grasp of affairs, his hopes and plans forthe future, all of the little details and trivialities of his life, halt,and he waits anxious, breathless, expectant. He looked at a little clockon a table at the end of the corridor, half expecting it to stop also andwait with him. His marriage hour that had seemed so big and vital seemednow, in the quiet corridor, with the stone floor and the silent whiteclad, rubber-shod nurses passing up and down and in the presence of thisgreater event, to have shrunk enormously. He walked up and down peering atthe clock, looking at the swinging door and biting at the stem of hisempty pipe.

And then through the swinging door came Grover.

"We can get the child, Sam, but to get it we shall have to take a chancewith her. Do you want to do that? Do not wait. Decide."

Sam sprang past him toward the door.

"You bungler," he cried, and his voice rang through the long quietcorridor. "You do not know what this means. Let me go."

Doctor Grover, catching him by the arm, swung him about. The two men stoodfacing each other.

"You stay here," said the doctor, his voice remaining quiet and firm; "Iwill attend to things. Your going in there would be pure folly now. Nowanswer me--do you want to take the chance?"

"No! No!" Sam shouted. "No! I want her--Sue--alive and well, back throughthat door."

A cold gleam came into his eyes and he shook his fist before the doctor'sface.

"Do not try deceiving me about this. By God, I will----"

Turning, Doctor Grover ran back through the swinging door leaving Samstaring blankly at his back. A nurse, one whom he had seen in DoctorGrover's office, came out of the door and taking his arm, walked besidehim up and down the corridor. Sam put his arm around her shoulder andtalked. An illusion that it was necessary to comfort her came to him.

"Do not worry," he said. "She will be all right. Grover will take care ofher. Nothing can happen to little Sue."

The nurse, a small, sweet-faced, Scotch woman, who knew and admired Sue,wept. Some quality in his voice had touched the woman in her and the tearsran in a little stream down her cheeks. Sam continued talking, the woman'stears helping him to regain his grip upon himself.

"My mother is dead," he said, an old sorrow revisiting him. "I wish thatyou, like Mary Underwood, would be a new mother to me."

When the time came that he could be taken to the room where Sue lay, hisself-possession had returned to him and his mind had begun blaming thelittle dead stranger for the unhappiness of the past months and for thelong separation from what he thought was the real Sue. Outside the door ofthe room into which she had been taken he stopped, hearing her voice, thinand weak, talking to Grover.

"Unfit--Sue McPherson unfit," said the voice, and Sam thought it wasfilled with an infinite weariness.

He ran through the door and dropped on his knees by her bed. She turnedher eyes to him smiling bravely.

"The next time we'll make it," she said.

The second child born to the young McPhersons arrived out of time. AgainSam walked, this time through the corridor of his own house and withoutthe consoling presence of the sweet-faced Scotch woman, and again he shookhis head at Doctor Grover who came to him consoling and reassuring.

After the death of the second child Sue lay for months in bed. In hisarms, in her own room, she wept openly in the presence of Grover and thenurses, crying out against her unfitness. For several days she refused tosee Colonel Tom, harbouring in her mind the notion that he was in some wayresponsible for her physical inability to bear living children, and whenshe got up from her bed, she remained for months white and listless butgrimly determined upon another attempt for the little life she so wantedto feel in her arms.

During the days of her carrying the second baby she had again the fierceugly attacks of temper that had shattered Sam's nerves, but having learnedto understand, he went quietly about his work, trying as far as in him layto close his ears to the stinging, hurtful things she sometimes said; andthe third time, it was agreed between them that if they were againunsuccessful they would turn their minds to other things.

"If we do not succeed this time we might as well count ourselves throughwith each other for good," she said one day in one of the fits of coldanger that were a part of child bearing with her.

That second night when Sam walked in the hospital corridor he was besidehimself. He felt like a young recruit called to face an unseen enemy andto stand motionless and inactive in the presence of the singing death thatran through the air. He remembered a story, told when he was a child by afellow soldier who had come to visit his father, of the prisoners atAndersonville creeping in the darkness past armed sentries to a littlepool of stagnant water beyond the dead line, and felt that he too wascreeping unarmed and helpless in the neighbourhood of death. In aconference at his house between the three some weeks before, it had beendecided, after tearful insistence on the part of Sue and a stand on thepart of Grover, who declared that he would not remain on the case unlesspermitted to use his own judgment, that an operation should be performed.

"Take the chances that need be taken," Sam had said to Grover after theconference; "she will never stand another defeat. Give her the child."

In the corridor it seemed to Sam that hours had passed and still he stoodmotionless waiting. His feet felt cold and he had the impression that theywere wet although the night was dry and a moon shone outside. When, from adistant part of the hospital, a groan reached his ears he shook withfright and had an inclination to cry out. Two young interns clad in whitepassed.

"Old Grover is doing a Caesarian section," said one of them; "he isgetting out of date. Hope he doesn't bungle it."

In Sam's ears rang the remembrance of Sue's voice, the Sue who that firsttime had gone into the room behind the swinging doors with the determinedsmile on her face. He thought he could see again the white face looking upfrom the wheeled cot on which they had taken her through the door.

"I am afraid, Dr. Grover--I am afraid I am unfit," he had heard her say asthe door closed.

And then Sam did a thing for which he cursed himself the rest of his life.On an impulse, and maddened by the intolerable waiting, he walked to theswinging doors and, pushing them open, stepped into the operating roomwhere Grover was at work upon Sue.

The room was long and narrow, with floors, walls and ceiling of whitecement. A great glaring light, suspended from the ceiling, threw its raysdirectly down on a white-clad figure lying on a white metal operatingtable. On the walls of the room were other glaring lights set in shiningglass reflectors. And, here and there through an intense, expectantatmosphere, moved and stood silently a group of men and women, faceless,hairless, with only their strangely vivid eyes showing through the whitemasks that covered their faces.

Sam, standing motionless by the door, looked about with wild, half-seeingeyes. Grover worked rapidly and silently, taking from time to time littleshining instruments from a swinging table close at his hand. The nursestanding beside him looked up toward the light and began calmly threadinga needle. And in a white basin on a little stand at the side of the roomlay the last of Sue's tremendous efforts toward new life, the last oftheir dreams of the great family.

Sam closed his eyes and fell. His head, striking against the wall, arousedhim and he struggled to his feet.

Without stopping his work, Grover began swearing.

"Damn it, man, get out of here."

Sam groped with his hand for the door. One of the white-clad, ghoulishfigures started toward him. And then with his head reeling and his eyesclosed he backed through the door and, running along the corridor and downa flight of broad stairs, reached the open air and darkness. He had nodoubt of Sue's death.

"She is gone," he muttered, hurrying bareheaded along the desertedstreets.

Through street after street he ran. Twice he came out upon the shores ofthe lake, and, then turning, went back into the heart of the city throughstreets bathed in the warm moonlight. Once he turned quickly at a cornerand stepping into a vacant lot stood behind a high board fence as apoliceman strolled along the street. Into his head came the idea that hehad killed Sue and that the blue-clad figure walking with heavy tread onthe stone pavement was seeking him to take him back to where she lay whiteand lifeless. Again he stopped, before a little frame drugstore on acorner, and sitting down on the steps before it cursed God openly anddefiantly like an angry boy defying his father. Some instinct led him tolook at the sky through the tangle of telegraph wires overhead.

"Go on and do what you dare!" he cried. "I will not follow you now. Ishall never try to find you after this."

Presently he began laughing at himself for the instinct that had led himto look at the sky and to shout out his defiance and, getting up, wanderedon. In his wanderings he came to a railroad track where a freight traingroaned and rattled over a crossing. When he came up to it he jumped uponan empty coal car, falling as he climbed, and cutting his face upon thesharp pieces of coal that lay scattered about the bottom of the car.

The train ground along slowly, stopping occasionally, the engine shriekinghysterically.

After a time he got out of the car and dropped to the ground. On all sidesof him were marshes, the long rank marsh grasses rolling and tossing inthe moonlight. When the train had passed he followed it, walkingstumblingly along. As he walked, following the blinking lights at the endof the train, he thought of the scene in the hospital and of Sue lyingdead for that--that ping livid and shapeless on the table under thelights.

Where the solid ground ran up to the tracks Sam sat down under a tree.Peace came over him. "This is the end of things," he thought, and was likea tired child comforted by its mother. He thought of the sweet-faced nursewho had walked with him that other time in the corridor of the hospitaland who had wept because of his fears, and then of the night when he hadfelt the throat of his father between his fingers in the squalid littlekitchen. He ran his hands along the ground. "Good old ground," he said. Asentence came into his mind followed by the figure of John Telferstriding, stick in hand, along a dusty road. "Here is spring come and timeto plant out flowers in the grass," he said aloud. His face felt swollenand sore from the fall in the freight car and he lay down on the groundunder a tree and slept.

When he woke it was morning and grey clouds were drifting across the sky.Within sight, down a road, a trolley car went past into the city. Beforehim, in the midst of the marsh, lay a low lake, and a raised walk, withboats tied to the posts on which it stood, ran down to the water. He wentdown the walk, bathed his bruised face in the water, and boarding a carwent back into the city.

In the morning air a new thought took possession of him. The wind ranalong a dusty road beside the car track, picking up little handfuls ofdust and playfully throwing them about. He had a strained, eager feelinglike some one listening for a faint call out of the distance.

"To be sure," he thought, "I know what it is, it is my wedding day. I amto marry Sue Rainey to-day."

At the house he found Grover and Colonel Tom standing in the breakfastroom. Grover looked at his swollen, distorted face. His voice trembled.

"Poor devil!" he said. "You have had a night!"

Sam laughed and slapped Colonel Tom on the shoulder.

"We will have to begin getting ready," he said. "The wedding is at ten.Sue will be getting anxious."

Grover and Colonel Tom took him by the arm and began leading him up thestairs, Colonel Tom weeping like a woman.

"Silly old fool," thought Sam.

When, two weeks later, he again opened his eyes to consciousness Sue satbeside his bed in a reclining chair, her little thin white hand in his.

"Get the baby!" he cried, believing anything possible. "I want to see thebaby!"

She laid her head down on the pillow.

"It was gone when you saw it," she said, and put an arm about his neck.

When the nurse came back she found them, their heads together upon thepillow, crying weakly like two tired children.

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