Windy McPherson's Son

by Sherwood Anderson

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Book II - Chapter 9

The story of Sam's life there in Chicago for the next several years ceasesto be the story of a man and becomes the story of a type, a crowd, a gang.What he and the group of men surrounding him and making money with him didin Chicago, other men and other groups of men have done in New York, inParis, in London. Coming into power with the great expansive wave ofprosperity that attended the first McKinley administration, these men wentmad of money making. They played with great industrial institutions andrailroad systems like excited children, and a man of Chicago won thenotice and something of the admiration of the world by his willingness tobet a million dollars on the turn of the weather. In the years ofcriticism and readjustment that followed this period of sporadic growth,writers have told with great clearness how the thing was done, and some ofthe participants, captains of industry turned penmen, Caesars become inkslingers, have bruited the story to an admiring world.

Given the time, the inclination, the power of the press, and theunscrupulousness, the thing that Sam McPherson and his followers did inChicago in not difficult. Advised by Webster and the talented Prince andMorrison to handle his publicity work, he rapidly unloaded his hugeholdings of common stock upon an eager public, keeping for himself thebonds which he hypothecated at the banks to increase his working capitalwhile continuing to control the company. When the common stock wasunloaded, he, with a group of fellow spirits, began an attack upon itthrough the stock market and in the press, and bought it again at a lowfigure, holding it ready to unload when the public should have forgotten.

The annual advertising expenditure of the firearms trust ran into millionsand Sam's hold upon the press of the country was almost unbelievablystrong. Morrison rapidly developed unusual daring and audacity in usingthis instrument and making it serve Sam's ends. He suppressed facts,created illusions, and used the newspapers as a whip to crack at the heelsof congressmen, senators, and legislators, of the various states, whensuch matters as appropriation for firearms came before them.

And Sam, who had undertaken the consolidation of the firearms companies,having a dream of himself as a great master in that field, a sort ofAmerican Krupp, rapidly awoke from the dream to take the bigger chancesfor gain in the world of speculation. Within a year he dropped Edwards ashead of the firearms trust and in his place put Lewis, with Morrison assecretary and manager of sales. Guided by Sam these two, like the littledrygoods merchant of the old Rainey Company, went from capital to capitaland from city to city making contracts, influencing news, placingadvertising contracts where they would do the most good, fixing men.

And in the meantime Sam, with Webster, a banker named Crofts who hadprofited largely in the firearms merger, and sometimes Morrison or Prince,began a series of stock raids, speculations, and manipulations thatattracted country-wide attention, and became known to the newspaperreading world as the McPherson Chicago crowd. They were in oil, railroads,coal, western land, mining, timber, and street railways. One summer Sam,with Prince, built, ran to a profit, and sold to advantage a hugeamusement park. Through his head day after day marched columns of figures,ideas, schemes, more and more spectacular opportunities for gain. Some ofthe enterprises in which he engaged, while because of their size theyseemed more dignified, were of reality of a type with the game smugglingof his South Water Street days, and in all of his operations it was hisold instinct for bargains and for the finding of buyers together withWebster's ability for carrying through questionable deals that made himand his followers almost constantly successful in the face of oppositionfrom the more conservative business and financial men of the city.

Again Sam led a new life, owning running horses at the tracks, membershipsin many clubs, a country house in Wisconsin, and shooting preserves inTexas. He drank steadily, played poker for big stakes, kept in the publicprints, and day after day led his crew upon the high seas of finance. Hedid not dare think and in his heart he was sick of it. Sick to the soul,so that when thought came to him he got out of his bed to seek roisteringcompanions or, getting pen and paper, sat for hours figuring out new andmore daring schemes for money making. The great forward movement in modernindustry of which he had dreamed of being a part had for him turned out tobe a huge meaningless gamble with loaded dice against a credulous public.With his followers he went on day after day doing deeds without thought.Industries were organised and launched, men employed and thrown out ofemployment, towns wrecked by the destruction of an industry and othertowns made by the building of other industries. At a whim of his athousand men began building a city on an Indiana sand hill, and at a waveof his hand another thousand men of an Indiana town sold their homes, withthe chicken houses in the back-yards and vines trained by the kitchendoors, and rushed to buy sections of the hill plotted off for them. He didnot stop to discuss with his followers the meaning of the things he did.He told them of the profits to be made and then, having done the thing, hewent with them to drink in bar rooms and to spend the evening or afternoonsinging songs, visiting his stable of runners or, more often, sittingsilently about the card table playing for high stakes. Making millionsthrough the manipulation of the public during the day, he sometimes sathalf the night struggling with his companions for the possession ofthousands.

Lewis, the Jew, the only one of Sam's companions who had not followed himin his spectacular money making, stayed in the office of the firearmscompany and ran it like the scientific able man of business he was. WhileSam remained chairman of the board of the company and had an office, adesk, and the name of leadership there, he let Lewis run the place, andspent his own time upon the stock exchange or in some corner with Websterand Crofts planning some new money making raid.

"You have the better of it, Lewis," he said one day in a reflective mood;"you thought I had cut the ground from under you when I got Tom Edwards,but I only set you more firmly in a larger place."

He made a movement with his hand toward the large general offices with therows of busy clerks and the substantial look of work being done.

"I might have had the work you are doing. I planned and schemed with thatend in view," he added, lighting a cigar and going out at the door.

"And the money hunger got you," laughed Lewis, looking after him, "thehunger that gets Jews and Gentiles and all who feed it."

One might have come upon the McPherson Chicago crowd about the old Chicagostock exchange on any day during those years, Crofts, tall, abrupt, anddogmatic; Morrison, slender, dandified, and gracious; Webster, welldressed, suave, gentlemanly, and Sam, silent, restless, and often moroseand ugly. Sometimes it seemed to Sam that they were all unreal, himselfand the men with him. He watched his companions cunningly. They wereconstantly posing before the passing crowd of brokers and smallspeculators. Webster, coming up to him on the floor of the exchange, wouldtell him of a snowstorm raging outside with the air of a man parting witha long-cherished secret. His companions went from one to the other vowingeternal friendships, and then, keeping spies upon each other, they hurriedto Sam with tales of secret betrayals. Into any deal proposed by him theywent eagerly, although sometimes fearfully, and almost always they won.And with Sam they made millions through the manipulation of the firearmscompany, and the Chicago and Northern Lake Railroad which he controlled.

In later years Sam looked back upon it all as a kind of nightmare. Itseemed to him that never during that period had he lived or thoughtsanely. The great financial leaders that he saw were not, he thought,great men. Some of them, like Webster, were masters of craft, or, likeMorrison, of words, but for the most part they were but shrewd, greedyvultures feeding upon the public or upon each other.

In the meantime Sam was rapidly degenerating. His paunch became distended,and his hands trembled in the morning. Being a man of strong appetites,and having a determination to avoid women, he almost constantly overdrankand overate, and in the leisure hours that came to him he hurried eagerlyfrom place to place, avoiding thought, avoiding sane quiet talk, avoidinghimself.

All of his companions did not suffer equally. Webster seemed made for thelife, thriving and expanding under it, putting his winnings steadilyaside, going on Sunday to a suburban church, avoiding the publicityconnecting his name with race horses and big sporting events that Croftssought and to which Sam submitted. One day Sam and Crofts caught him in aneffort to sell them out to a group of New York bankers in a mining dealand turned the trick on him instead, whereupon he went off to New York tobecome a respectable big business man and the friend of senators andphilanthropists.

Crofts was a man with chronic domestic troubles, one of those men whobegin each day by cursing their wives before their associates and yetcontinue living with them year after year. There was a kind of roughsquareness in the man, and after the completion of a successful deal hewould be as happy as a boy, pounding men on the back, shaking withlaughter, throwing money about, making crude jokes. After Sam left Chicagohe finally divorced his wife and married an actress from the vaudevillestage and after losing two-thirds of his fortune in an effort to capturecontrol of a southern railroad, went to England and, coached by theactress wife, developed into an English country gentleman.

And Sam was a man sick. Day after day he went on drinking more and moreheavily, playing for bigger and bigger stakes, allowing himself less andless thought of himself. One day he received a long letter from JohnTelfer telling of the sudden death of Mary Underwood and berating him forhis neglect of her.

"She was ill for a year and without an income," wrote Telfer. Sam noticedthat the man's hand had begun to tremble. "She lied to me and told me youhad sent her money, but now that she is dead I find that though she wroteyou she got no answer. Her old aunt told me."

Sam put the letter into his pocket and going into one of his clubs begandrinking with a crowd of men he found idling there. He had paid littleattention to his correspondence for months. No doubt the letter from Maryhad been received by his secretary and thrown aside with the letters ofthousands of other women, begging letters, amorous letters, lettersdirected at him because of his wealth and the prominence given hisexploits by the newspapers.

After wiring an explanation and mailing a check the size of which filledJohn Telfer with admiration, Sam with a half dozen fellow roisterers spentthe late afternoon and evening going from saloon to saloon through thesouth side. When he got to his apartments late that night, his head wasreeling and his mind filled with distorted memories of drinking men andwomen and of himself standing on a table in some obscure drinking placeand calling upon the shouting, laughing hangers-on of his crowd of richmoney spenders to think and to work and to seek Truth.

He went to sleep in his chair, his mind filled with the dancing faces ofdead women, Mary Underwood and Janet and Sue, tear-stained faces callingto him. When he awoke and shaved he went out into the street and toanother down-town club.

"I wonder if Sue is dead, too," he muttered, remembering his dream.

At the club he was called to the telephone by Lewis, who asked him to comeat once to his office at the Edwards Consolidated. When he got there hefound a wire from Sue. In a moment of loneliness and despondency over theloss of his old business standing and reputation, Colonel Tom had shothimself in a New York hotel.

Sam sat at his desk, fingering the yellow paper lying before him andfighting to get his head clear.

"The old coward. The damned old coward," he muttered; "any one could havedone that."

When Lewis came into Sam's office he found his chief sitting at his deskfingering the telegram and muttering to himself. When Sam handed him thewire he came around and stood beside Sam, his hand upon his shoulder.

"Well, do not blame yourself for that," he said, with quick understanding.

"I don't," Sam muttered; "I do not blame myself for anything. I am aresult, not a cause. I am trying to think. I am not through yet. I amgoing to begin again when I get things thought out."

Lewis went out of the room leaving him to his thoughts. For an hour he satthere reviewing his life. When he came to the day that he had humiliatedColonel Tom, there came back to his mind the sentence he had written onthe sheet of paper while the vote was being counted. "The best men spendtheir lives seeking truth."

Suddenly he came to a decision and, calling Lewis, began laying out a planof action. His head cleared and the ring came back into his voice. ToLewis he gave an option on his entire holdings of Edwards Consolidatedstocks and bonds and to him also he entrusted the clearing up of dealafter deal in which he was interested. Then, calling a broker, he beganthrowing a mass of stock on the market. When Lewis told him that Croftswas 'phoning wildly about town to find him, and was with the help ofanother banker supporting the market and taking Sam's stocks as fast asoffered, he laughed and giving Lewis instructions regarding the disposalof his monies walked out of the office, again a free man and again seekingthe answer to his problem.

He made no attempt to answer Sue's wire. He was restless to get atsomething he had in his mind. He went to his apartments and packed a bagand from there disappeared saying goodbye to no one. In his mind was nodefinite idea of where he was going or what he was going to do. He knewonly that he would follow the message his hand had written. He would tryto spend his life seeking truth.

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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.