Sam McPherson is a living American. He is a rich man, but his money, thathe spent so many years and so much of his energy acquiring, does not meanmuch to him. What is true of him is true of more wealthy Americans than iscommonly believed. Something has happened to him that has happened to theothers also, to how many of the others? Men of courage, with strong bodiesand quick brains, men who have come of a strong race, have taken up whatthey had thought to be the banner of life and carried it forward. Growingweary they have stopped in a road that climbs a long hill and have leanedthe banner against a tree. Tight brains have loosened a little. Strongconvictions have become weak. Old gods are dying.
"It is only when you are torn from your mooring and drift like a rudderless ship I am able to come near to you."
The banner has been carried forward by a strong daring man filled withdetermination.
What is inscribed on it?
It would perhaps be dangerous to inquire too closely. We Americans havebelieved that life must have point and purpose. We have called ourselvesChristians, but the sweet Christian philosophy of failure has been unknownamong us. To say of one of us that he has failed is to take life andcourage away. For so long we have had to push blindly forward. Roads hadto be cut through our forests, great towns must be built. What in Europehas been slowly building itself out of the fibre of the generations wemust build now, in a lifetime.
In our father's day, at night in the forests of Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky,and on the wide prairies, wolves howled. There was fear in our fathers andmothers, pushing their way forward, making the new land. When the land wasconquered fear remained, the fear of failure. Deep in our American soulsthe wolves still howl.
* * * * *
There were moments after Sam came back to Sue, bringing the threechildren, when he thought he had snatched success out of the very jaws offailure.
But the thing from which he had all his life been fleeing was still there.It hid itself in the branches of the trees that lined the New Englandroads where he went to walk with the two boys. At night it looked down athim from the stars.
Perhaps life wanted acceptance from him, but he could not accept. Perhapshis story and his life ended with the home-coming, perhaps it began then.
The home-coming was not in itself a completely happy event. There was ahouse with a fire at night and the voices of the children. In Sam's breastthere was a feeling of something alive, growing.
Sue was generous, but she was not now the Sue of the bridle path inJackson Park in Chicago or the Sue who had tried to remake the world byraising fallen women. On his arrival at her house, on a summer night,coming in suddenly and strangely with the three strange children--a littleinclined toward tears and homesickness--she was flustered and nervous.
Darkness was coming on when he walked up the gravel path from the gate tothe house door with the child Mary in his arms and the two boys, Joe andTom, walking soberly and solemnly beside him. Sue had just come out at thefront door and stood regarding them, startled and a little frightened. Herhair was becoming grey, but as she stood there Sam thought her figurealmost boyish in its slenderness.
With quick generosity she threw aside the inclination in herself to askmany questions but there was the suggestion of a taunt in the question shedid ask.
"Have you decided to come back to me and is this your home-coming?" sheasked, stepping down into the path and looking not at Sam but at thechildren.
Sam did not answer at once, and little Mary began to cry. That was a help.
"They will all be wanting something to eat and a place to sleep," he said,as though coming back to a wife, long neglected, and bringing with himthree strange children were an everyday affair.
Although she was puzzled and afraid, Sue smiled and led the way into thehouse. Lamps were lighted and the five human beings, so abruptly broughttogether, stood looking at each other. The two boys clung to each otherand little Mary put her arms about Sam's neck and hid her face on hisshoulder. He unloosed her clutching hands and put her boldly into Sue'sarms. "She will be your mother now," he said defiantly, not looking atSue.
* * * * *
The evening was got through, blunderingly by himself, Sam thought, andvery nobly by Sue.
There was the mother hunger still alive in her. He had shrewdly counted onthat. It blinded her eyes to other things and then a notion had come intoher head and there seemed the possibility of doing a peculiarly romanticact. Before that notion was destroyed, later in the evening, both Sam andthe children had been installed in the house.
A tall strong Negress came into the room, and Sue gave her instructionsregarding food for the children. "They will want bread and milk, and bedsmust be found for them," she said, and then, although her mind was stillfilled with the romantic notion that they were Sam's children by someother woman, she took her plunge. "This is Mr. McPherson, my husband, andthese are our three children," she announced to the puzzled and smilingservant.
They went into a low-ceilinged room whose windows looked into a garden. Inthe garden an old Negro with a sprinkling can was watering flowers. Alittle light yet remained. Both Sam and Sue were glad there was no more."Don't bring lamps, a candle will do," Sue said, and she went to standnear the door beside her husband. The three children were on the point ofbreaking forth into sobs, but the Negro woman with a quick intuitive senseof the situation began to chatter, striving to make the children feel athome. She awoke wonder and hope in the breasts of the boys. "There is abarn with horses and cows. To-morrow old Ben will show you everything,"she said, smiling at them.
* * * * *
A thick grove of elm and maple trees stood between Sue's house and a roadthat went down a hill into a New England village, and while Sue and theNegro woman put the children to bed, Sam went there to wait. In the feeblelight the trunks of trees could be dimly seen, but the thick branchesoverhead made a wall between him and the sky. He went back into thedarkness of the grove and then returned toward the open space before thehouse.
He was nervous and distraught and two Sam McPhersons seemed struggling forpossession of his person.
There was the man he had been taught by the life about him to bring alwaysto the surface, the shrewd, capable man who got his own way, trampledpeople underfoot, went plunging forward, always he hoped forward, the manof achievement.
And then there was another personality, a quite different beingaltogether, buried away within him, long neglected, often forgotten, atimid, shy, destructive Sam who had never really breathed or lived orwalked before men.
What of him? The life Sam had led had not taken the shy destructive thingwithin into account. Still it was powerful. Had it not torn him out of hisplace in life, made of him a homeless wanderer? How many times it hadtried to speak its own word, take entire possession of him.
It was trying again now, and again and from old habit Sam fought againstit, thrusting it back into the dark inner caves of himself, back intodarkness.
He kept whispering to himself. Perhaps now the test of his life had come.There was a way to approach life and love. There was Sue. A basis for loveand understanding might be found with her. Later the impulse could becarried on and into the lives of the children he had found and brought toher.
A vision of himself as a truly humble man, kneeling before life, kneelingbefore the intricate wonder of life, came to him, but he was again afraid.When he saw Sue's figure, dressed in white, a dim, pale, flashing thing,coming down steps toward him, he wanted to run away, to hide himself inthe darkness.
And he wanted also to run toward her, to kneel at her feet, not becauseshe was Sue but because she was human and like himself filled with humanperplexities.
He did neither of the two things. The boy of Caxton was still alive withinhim. With a boyish lift of the head he went boldly to her. "Nothing butboldness will answer now," he kept saying to himself.
* * * * *
They walked in the gravel path before the house and he tried lamely totell his story, the story of his wanderings, of his seeking. When he cameto the tale of the finding of the children she stopped in the path andstood listening, pale and tense in the half light.
Then she threw back her head and laughed, nervously, half hysterically. "Ihave taken them and you, of course," she said, after he had stepped to herand had put his arm about her waist. "My life alone hasn't turned out tobe a very inspiring affair. I had made up my mind to take them and you, inthe house there. The two years you have been gone have seemed like an age.What a foolish mistake my mind has made. I thought they must be your ownchildren by some other woman, some woman you had found to take my place.It was an odd notion. Why, the older of the two must be nearly fourteen."
They went toward the house, the Negro woman having, at Sue's command,found food for Sam and respread the table, but at the door he stopped andexcusing himself stepped again into the darkness under the trees.
In the house lamps had been lighted and he could see Sue's figure goingthrough a room at the front of the house toward the dining-room. Presentlyshe returned and pulled the shades at the front windows. A place was beingprepared for him inside there, a shut-in place in which he was to livewhat was left of his life.
With the pulling of the shades darkness dropped down over the figure ofthe man standing just within the grove of trees and darkness dropped downover the inner man also. The struggle within him became more intense.
Could he surrender to others, live for others? There was the house darklyseen before him. It was a symbol. Within the house was the woman, Sue,ready and willing to begin the task of rebuilding their lives together.Upstairs in the house now were the three children, three children who mustbegin life as he had once done, who must listen to his voice, the voice ofSue and all the other voices they would hear speaking words in the world.They would grow up and thrust out into a world of people as he had done.
To what end?
There was an end. Sam believed that stoutly. "To shift the load to theshoulders of children is cowardice," he whispered to himself.
An almost overpowering desire to turn and run away from the house, fromSue who had so generously received him and from the three new lives intowhich he had thrust himself and in which in the future he would have to beconcerned, took hold of him. His body shook with the strength of it, buthe stood still under the trees. "I cannot run away from life. I must faceit. I must begin to try to understand these other lives, to love," he toldhimself. The buried inner thing in him thrust itself up.
How still the night had become. In the tree beneath which he stood a birdmoved on some slender branch and there was a faint rustling of leaves. Thedarkness before and behind was a wall through which he must in some waymanage to thrust himself into the light. With his hand before him, asthough trying to push aside some dark blinding mass, he moved out of thegrove and thus moving stumbled up the steps and into the house.