Windy McPherson's Son

by Sherwood Anderson

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Book IV - Chapter 1

One afternoon in early September Sam got on a westward-bound trainintending to visit his sister on the farm near Caxton. For years he hadheard nothing from Kate, but she had, he knew, two daughters, and hethought he would do something for them.

"I will put them on the Virginia farm and make a will leaving them mymoney," he thought. "Perhaps I shall be able to make them happy by settingthem up in life and giving them beautiful clothes to wear."

At St. Louis he got off the train, thinking vaguely that he would see anattorney and make arrangements about the will, and for several days stayedabout the Planters Hotel with a set of drinking companions he had pickedup. One afternoon he began going from place to place drinking andgathering companions. An ugly light was in his eyes and he looked at menand women passing in the streets, feeling that he was in the midst ofenemies, and that for him the peace, contentment, and good cheer thatshone out of the eyes of others was beyond getting.

In the late afternoon, followed by a troop of roistering companions, hecame out upon a street flanked with small, brick warehouses facing theriver, where steamboats lay tied to floating docks.

"I want a boat to take me and my crowd for a cruise up and down theriver," he announced, approaching the captain of one of the boats. "Takeus up and down the river until we are tired of it. I will pay what itcosts."

It was one of the days when drink would not take hold of him, and he wentamong his companions, buying drinks and thinking himself a fool tocontinue furnishing entertainment for the vile crew that sat about him onthe deck of the boat. He began shouting and ordering them about.

"Sing louder," he commanded, tramping up and down and scowling at hiscompanions.

A young man of the party who had a reputation as a dancer refused toperform when commanded. Springing forward Sam dragged him out on the deckbefore the shouting crowd.

"Now dance!" he growled, "or I will throw you into the river."

The young man danced furiously, and Sam marched up and down and looked athim and at the leering faces of the men and women lounging along the deckor shouting at the dancer. The liquor in him beginning to take effect, aqueerly distorted version of his old passion for reproduction came to himand he raised his hand for silence.

"I want to see a woman who is a mother," he shouted. "I want to see awoman who has borne children."

A small woman with black hair and burning black eyes sprang from the groupgathered about the dancer.

"I have borne children--three of them," she said, laughing up into hisface. "I can bear more of them."

Sam looked at her stupidly and taking her by the arm led her to a chair onthe deck. The crowd laughed.

"Belle is after his roll," whispered a short, fat man to his companion, atall woman with blue eyes.

As the steamer, with its load of men and women drinking and singing songs,went up the river past bluffs covered with trees, the woman beside Sampointed to a row of tiny houses at the top of the bluffs.

"My children are there. They are getting supper now," she said.

She began singing, laughing and waving a bottle to the others sittingalong the deck. A youth with heavy features stood upon a chair and sang asong of the street, and, jumping to her feet, Sam's companion kept timewith the bottle in her hand. Sam walked over to where the captain stoodlooking up the river.

"Turn back," he said, "I am tired of this crew."

On the way back down the river the black-eyed woman again sat beside Sam.

"We will go to my house," she said quietly, "just you and me. I will showyou the kids."

Darkness was gathering over the river as the boat turned, and in thedistance the lights of the city began blinking into view. The crowd hadgrown quiet, sleeping in chairs along the deck or gathering in smallgroups and talking in low tones. The black-haired woman began to tell Samher story.

She was, she said, the wife of a plumber who had left her.

"I drove him crazy," she said, laughing quietly. "He wanted me to stay athome with him and the kids night after night. He used to follow me downtown at night begging me to come home. When I wouldn't come he would goaway with tears in his eyes. It made me furious. He wasn't a man. He woulddo anything I asked him to do. And then he ran away and left the kids onmy hands."

In the city Sam, with the black-haired woman beside him, rode about in anopen carriage, forgetting the children and going from place to place,eating and drinking. For an hour they sat in a box at the theatre, butgrew tired of the performance and climbed again into the carriage.

"We will go to my house. I want to have you alone," said the woman.

They drove through street after street of workingmen's houses, wherechildren ran laughing and playing under the lights, and two boys, theirbare legs flashing in the lights from the lamps overhead, ran after them,holding to the back of the carriage.

The driver whipped the horses and looked back laughing. The woman got upand kneeling on the seat of the carriage laughed down into the faces ofthe running boys.

"Run, you little devils," she cried.

They held on, running furiously. Their legs twinkled and flashed under thelights.

"Give me a silver dollar," she said, turning to Sam, and when he had givenit to her, threw it ringing upon the pavement under a street lamp. The twoboys darted for it, shouting and waving their hands to her.

Swarms of huge flies and beetles circled under the street lamps, strikingSam and the woman in the face. One of them, a great black crawling thing,alighted on her breast, and taking it in her hand she crept forward anddropped it down the neck of the driver.

In spite of his hard drinking during the afternoon and evening, Sam's headwas clear and a calm hatred of life burned in him. His mind ran back overthe years he had passed since breaking his word to Sue, and a scorn of alleffort burned in him.

"It is what a man gets who goes seeking Truth," he thought. "He comes to afine end in life."

On all sides of him life ran playing on the pavement and leaping in theair. It circled and buzzed and sang above his head in the summer nightthere in the heart of the city. Even in the sullen man sitting in thecarriage beside the black-haired woman it began to sing. The blood climbedthrough his body; an old half-dead longing, half hunger, half hope awokein him, pulsating and insistent. He looked at the laughing, intoxicatedwoman beside him and a feeling of masculine approval shot through him. Hebegan thinking of what she had said before the laughing crowd on thesteamer.

"I have borne three children and can bear more."

His blood, stirred by the sight of the woman, awoke his sleeping brain,and he began again to quarrel with life and what life had offered him. Hethought that always he would stubbornly refuse to accept the call of lifeunless he could have it on his own terms, unless he could command anddirect it as he had commanded and directed the gun company.

"Else why am I here?" he muttered, looking away from the vacant, laughingface of the woman and at the broad, muscular back of the driver on theseat in front. "Why had I a brain and a dream and a hope? Why went I aboutseeking Truth?"

His mind ran on in the vein started by the sight of the circling beetlesand the running boys. The woman put her head upon his shoulder and herblack hair blew against his face. She struck wildly at the circlingbeetles, laughing like a child when she had caught one of them in herhand.

"Men like me are for some end. They are not to be played with as I havebeen," he muttered, clinging to the hand of the woman, who, also, hethought, was being tossed about by life.

Before a saloon, on a street where cars ran, the carriage stopped. Throughthe open front door Sam could see working-men standing before a bardrinking foaming glasses of beer, the hanging lamps above their headsthrowing their black shadows upon the floor. A strong, stale smell cameout at the door. The woman leaned over the side of the carriage andshouted. "O Will, come out here."

A man clad in a long white apron and with his shirt sleeves rolled to hiselbows came from behind the bar and talked to her, and when they hadstarted on she told Sam of her plan to sell her home and buy the place.

"Will you run it?" he asked.

"Sure," she said. "The kids can take care of themselves."

At the end of a little street of a half dozen neat cottages, they got outof the carriage and walked with uncertain steps along a sidewalk skirtinga high bluff and overlooking the river. Below the houses a tangled mass ofbushes and small trees lay black in the moonlight, and in the distance thegrey body of the river showed faint and far away. The undergrowth was sothick that, looking down, one saw only the tops of the growth, with hereand there a grey outcrop of rocks that glistened in the moonlight.

Up a flight of stone steps they climbed to the porch of one of the housesfacing the river. The woman had stopped laughing and hung heavily on Sam'sarm, her feet groping for the steps. They passed through a door and into along, low-ceilinged room. An open stairway at the side of the room went upto the floor above, and through a curtained doorway at the end one lookedinto a small dining-room. A rag carpet lay on the floor and about a table, under a hanging lamp at the centre, sat threechildren. Sam looked at them closely. His head reeled and he clutched atthe knob of the door. A boy of perhaps fourteen, with freckles on his faceand on the backs of his hands and with reddish-brown hair and brown eyes,was reading aloud. Beside him a younger boy with black hair and blackeyes, and with his knees doubled up on the chair in front of him so thathis chin rested on them, sat listening. A tiny girl, pale and with yellowhair and dark circles under her eyes, slept in another chair, her headhanging uncomfortably to one side. She was, one would have said, seven,the black-haired boy ten.

The freckle-faced boy stopped reading and looked at the man and woman; thesleeping child stirred uneasily in her chair, and the black-haired boystraightened out his legs and looked over his shoulder.

"Hello, Mother," he said heartily.

The woman walked unsteadily to the curtained doorway leading into thedining-room and pulled aside the curtains.

"Come here, Joe," she said.

The freckle-faced boy arose and went toward her. She stood aside,supporting herself with one hand grasping the curtain. As he passed shestruck him with her open hand on the back of the head, sending him reelinginto the dining-room.

"Now you, Tom," she called to the black-haired boy. "I told you kids towash the dishes after supper and to put Mary to bed. Here it is past tenand nothing done and you two reading books again."

The black-haired boy got up and started obediently toward her, but Samwalked rapidly past him and clutched the woman by the arm so that shewinced and twisted in his grasp.

"You come with me," he said.

He walked the woman across the room and up the stairs. She leaned heavilyon his arm, laughing, and looking up into his face.

At the top of the stairway he stopped.

"We go in here," she said, pointing to a door.

He took her into the room. "You get to sleep," he said, and going outclosed the door, leaving her sitting heavily on the edge of the bed.

Downstairs he found the two boys among the dishes in a tiny kitchen offthe dining-room. The little girl still slept uneasily in the chair by thetable, the hot lamp-light streaming down on her thin cheeks.

Sam stood in the kitchen door looking at the two boys, who looked back athim self-consciously.

"Which of you two puts Mary to bed?" he asked, and then, without waitingfor an answer, turned to the taller of the two boys. "Let Tom do it," hesaid. "I will help you here."

Joe and Sam stood in the kitchen at work with the dishes; the boy, goingbusily about, showed the man where to put the clean dishes, and got himdry wiping towels. Sam's coat was off and his sleeves rolled up.

The work went on in half awkward silence and a storm went on within Sam'sbreast. When the boy Joe looked shyly up at him it was as though the lashof a whip had cut down across flesh, suddenly grown tender. Old memoriesbegan to stir within him and he remembered his own childhood, his motherat work among other people's soiled clothes, his father Windy coming homedrunk, and the chill in his mother's heart and in his own. There wassomething men and women owed to childhood, not because it was childhoodbut because it was new life springing up. Aside from any question offatherhood or motherhood there was a debt to be paid.

In the little house on the bluff there was silence. Outside the housethere was darkness and darkness lay over Sam's spirit. The boy Joe wentquickly about, putting the dishes Sam had wiped on the shelves. Somewhereon the river, far below the house, a steamboat whistled. The backs of thehands of the boy were covered with freckles. How quick and competent thehands were. Here was new life, as yet clean, unsoiled, unshaken by life.Sam was shamed by the trembling of his own hands. He had always wantedquickness and firmness within his own body, the health of the body that isa temple for the health of the spirit. He was an American and down deepwithin himself was the moral fervor that is American and that had becomeso strangely perverted in himself and others. As so often happened withhim, when he was deeply stirred, an army of vagrant thoughts ran throughhis head. The thoughts had taken the place of the perpetual scheming andplanning of his days as a man of affairs, but as yet all his thinking hadbrought him to nothing and had only left him more shaken and uncertainthen ever.

The dishes were now all wiped and he went out of the kitchen glad toescape the shy silent presence of the boy. "Has life quite gone from me?Am I but a dead thing walking about?" he asked himself. The presence ofthe children had made him feel that he was himself but a child, a growntired and shaken child. There was maturity and manhood somewhere abroad.Why could he not come to it? Why could it not come into him?

The boy Tom returned from having put his sister into bed and the two boyssaid good night to the strange man in their mother's house. Joe, thebolder of the two, stepped forward and offered his hand. Sam shook itsolemnly and then the younger boy came forward.

"I'll be around here to-morrow I think," Sam said huskily.

The boys were gone, into the silence of the house, and Sam walked up anddown in the little room. He was restless as though about to start on a newjourney and half unconsciously began running his hands over his bodywishing it strong and hard as when he tramped the road. As on the day whenhe had walked out of the Chicago Club bound on his hunt for Truth, he lethis mind go so that it played freely over his past life, reviewing andanalysing.

For hours he sat on the porch or walked up and down in the room where thelamp still burned brightly. Again the smoke from his pipe tasted good onhis tongue and all the night air had a sweetness that brought back to himthe walk beside the bridle path in Jackson Park when Sue had given himherself, and with herself a new impulse in life.

It was two o'clock when he lay down upon a couch in the living-room andblew out the light. He did not undress, but threw his shoes on the floorand lay looking at a wide path of moonlight that came through the opendoor. In the darkness it seemed that his mind worked more rapidly and thatthe events and motives of his restless years went streaming past likeliving things upon the floor.

Suddenly he sat up and listened. The voice of one of the boys, heavy withsleep, ran through the upper part of the house.

"Mother! O Mother!" called the sleepy voice, and Sam thought he could hearthe little body moving restlessly in bed.

Silence followed. He sat upon the edge of the couch, waiting. It seemed tohim that he was coming to something; that his brain that had for hoursbeen working more and more rapidly was about to produce the thing forwhich he waited. He felt as he had felt that night as he waited in thecorridor of the hospital.

In the morning the three children came down the stairs and finisheddressing in the long room, the little girl coming last, carrying her shoesand stockings and rubbing her eyes with the back of her hand. A coolmorning wind blew up from the river and through the open screened doors ashe and Joe cooked breakfast, and later as the four of them sat at thetable Sam tried to talk but did not make much progress. His tongue washeavy and the children seemed looking at him with strange questioningeyes. "Why are you here?" their eyes asked.

For a week Sam stayed in the city, coming daily to the house. With thechildren he talked a little, and in the evening, when the mother had goneaway, the little girl came to him. He carried her to a chair on the porchoutside and while the boys sat reading under the lamp inside she went tosleep in his arms. Her body was warm and the breath came softly andsweetly from between her lips. Sam looked down the bluffside and saw thecountry and the river far below, sweet in the moonlight. Tears came intohis eyes. Was a new sweet purpose growing within him or were the tears butevidence of self pity? He wondered.

One night the black-haired woman again came home far gone in drink, andagain Sam led her up the stairs to see her fall muttering and babblingupon the bed. Her companion, a little flashily dressed man with a beard,had run off at the sight of Sam standing in the living-room under thelamp. The two boys, to whom he had been reading, said nothing, lookingself-consciously at the book upon the table and occasionally out of thecorner of their eyes at their new friend. In a few minutes they too wentup the stairs, and as on that first night, they put out their handsawkwardly.

Through the night Sam again sat in the darkness outside or lay awake onthe couch. "I will make a new try, adopt a new purpose in life now," hesaid to himself.

When the children had gone to school the next morning, Sam took a car andwent into the city, going first to a bank to have a large draft cashed.Then he spent many busy hours going from store to store and buyingclothes, caps, soft underwear, suit cases, dresses, night clothes, andbooks. Last of all he bought a large dressed doll. All these things he hadsent to his room at the hotel, leaving a man there to pack the trunks andsuit cases, and get them to the station. A large, motherly-looking woman,an employ of the hotel, who passed through the hall, offered to help withthe packing.

After another visit or two Sam got back upon the car and went again to thehouse. In his pockets he had several thousands of dollars in large bills.He had remembered the power of cash in deals he had made in the past.

"I will see what it will do here," he thought.

In the house Sam found the black-haired woman lying on a couch in theliving-room. As he came in at the door she arose unsteadily and looked athim.

"There's a bottle in the cupboard in the kitchen," she said. "Get me adrink. Why do you hang about here?"

Sam brought the bottle and poured her a drink, pretending to drink withher by putting the bottle to his lips and throwing back his head.

"What was your husband like?" he asked.

"Who? Jack?" she said. "Oh, he was all right. He was stuck on me. He stoodfor anything until I brought men home here. Then he got crazy and wentaway." She looked at Sam and laughed.

"I didn't care much for him," she added. "He couldn't make money enoughfor a live woman."

Sam began talking of the saloon she intended buying.

"The children will be a bother, eh?" he said.

"I have an offer for the house," she said. "I wish I didn't have the kids.They are a nuisance."

"I have been figuring that out," Sam told her. "I know a woman in the Eastwho would take them and raise them. She is wild about kids. I should liketo do something to help you. I might take them to her."

"In the name of Heaven, man, lead them away," she laughed, and tookanother drink from the bottle.

Sam drew from his pocket a paper he had secured from a downtown attorney.

"Get a neighbour in here to witness this," he said. "The woman will wantthings regular. It releases you from all responsibility for the kids andputs it on her."

She looked at him suspiciously. "What's the graft? Who gets stuck for thefares down east?"

Sam laughed and going to the back door shouted to a man who sat under atree back of the next house smoking a pipe.

"Sign here," he said, putting the paper before her. "Here is yourneighbour to sign as witness. You do not get stuck for a cent."

The woman, half drunk, signed the paper, after a long doubtful look atSam, and when she had signed and had taken another drink from the bottlelay down again on the couch.

"If any one wakes me up for the next six hours they will get killed," shedeclared. It was evident she knew little of what she had done, but at themoment Sam did not care. He was again a bargainer, ready to take anadvantage. Vaguely he felt that he might be bargaining for an end in life,for purpose to come into his own life.

Sam went quietly down the stone steps and along the little street at thebrow of the hill to the car tracks, and at noon was waiting in anautomobile outside the door of the schoolhouse when the children came out.

He drove across the city to the Union Station, the three childrenaccepting him and all he did without question. At the station they foundthe man from the hotel with the trunks and with three bright new suitcases. Sam went to the express office and putting several bills into anenvelope sealed and sent it to the woman while the three children walkedup and down in the train shed carrying the cases, aglow with the pride ofthem.

At two o'clock Sam, with the little girl in his arms and with one of theboys seated on either side of him, sat in a stateroom of a New York flyer--bound for Sue.

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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.