Marching Men by Sherwood Anderson
In the year following the beginning of his acquaintanceship with Edith Carson McGregor continued to work hard and steadily in the warehouse and with his books at night. He was promoted to be foreman, replacing the German, and he thought he had made progress with his studies. When he did not go to the night school he went to Edith Carson's place and sat reading a book and smoking his pipe by a little table in the back room.
About the room and in and out of her shop moved Edith, going softly and quietly. A light began to come into her eyes and colour into her cheeks. She did not talk but new and daring thoughts visited her mind and a thrill of reawakened life ran through her body. With gentle insistence she did not let her dreams express themselves in words and almost hoped that she might be able to go on forever thus, having this strong man come into her presence and sit absorbed in his own affairs within the walls of her house. Sometimes she wanted him to talk and wished that she had the power to lead him into the telling of little facts of his life. She wanted to be told of his mother and father, of his boyhood in the Pennsylvania town, of his dreams and his desires but for the most part she was content to wait and only hoped that nothing would happen to bring an end to her waiting.
McGregor began to read books of history and became absorbed in the figures of certain men, all soldiers and leaders of soldiers who stalked across the pages wherein was written the story of man's life. The figures of Sherman, Grant, Lee, Jackson, Alexander, Caesar, Napoleon, and Wellington seemed to him to stand starkly up among the other figures in the books and going to the Public Library at the noon hour he got books concerning these men and for a time lost interest in the study of law and devoted himself to contemplation of the breakers of laws.
There was something beautiful about McGregor in those days. He was as virginal and pure as a chunk of the hard black coal out of the hills of his own state and like the coal ready to burn himself out into power. Nature had been kind to him. He had the gift of silence and of isolation. All about him were other men, perhaps as strong physically as himself and with better trained minds who were being destroyed and he was not being destroyed. For the others life let itself run out in the endless doing of little tasks, the thinking of little thoughts and the saying of groups of words over and over endlessly like parrots that sit in cages and earn their bread by screaming two or three sentences to passers by.
It is a terrible thing to speculate on how man has been defeated by his ability to say words. The brown bear in the forest has no such power and the lack of it has enabled him to retain a kind of nobility of bearing sadly lacking in us. On and on through life we go, socialists, dreamers, makers of laws, sellers of goods and believers in suffrage for women and we continuously say words, worn-out words, crooked words, words without power or pregnancy in them.
The matter is one to be thought of seriously by youths and maidens inclined to garrulousness. Those who have the habit of it will never change. The gods who lean over the rim of the world to laugh at us have marked them for their barrenness.
And yet the word must run on. McGregor, the silent, wanted his word. He wanted his true note as an individual to ring out above the hubbub of voices and then he wanted to use the strength and the virility within himself to carry his word far. What he did not want was that his mouth become foul and his brain become numb with the saying of the words and the thinking of the thoughts of other men and that he in his turn become a mere toiling food-consuming chattering puppet to the gods.
For a long time the miner's son wondered what power lay in the men whose figures stood up so boldly in the pages of the books he read. He tried to think the matter out as he sat in Edith's room or walked by himself through the streets. In the warehouse he looked with new curiosity at the men who worked in the great rooms piling and unpiling apple barrels and the boxes of eggs and fruit When he came into one of the rooms the men who had been standing in groups idly talking of their own affairs began to run busily about. They no longer chattered but as long as he remained worked desperately, furtively watching as he stood staring at them.
McGregor wondered. He tried to fathom the mystery of the power that made them willing to work until their bodies were bent and stooped, that made them unashamed to be afraid and that left them in the end mere slaves to words and formulas.
The perplexed young man who watched the men in the warehouse began to think that the passion for reproduction might have something to do with the matter. Perhaps his constant association with Edith awakened the thought. His own loins were heavy with the seeds of children and only his absorption in the thought of finding himself kept him from devoting himself to the feeding of his lusts. One day he had a talk concerning the matter with a at the warehouse. The talk came about in this way.
In the warehouse the men came in at the door in the morning, drifting in like flies that wander in at the open windows on a summer day. With downcast eyes they shuffled across the long floor, white with lime. Morning after morning they came in at the door and went silently to their places looking at the floor and scowling. A slender bright-eyed young man who acted as shipping clerk during the day sat in a little coop and to him the men as they passed called out their numbers. From time to time the shipping clerk who was an Irishman tried to joke with one of them, tapping sharply upon his desk with a pencil as though to compel attention. "They are no good," he said to himself, when in response to his sallies they only smiled vaguely. "Although they get but a dollar and a half a day they are overpaid!" Like McGregor he had nothing but contempt for the men whose numbers he put in the book. Their stupidity he took as a compliment to himself. "We are the kind who get things done," he thought as he put the pencil back of his ear and closed the book. In his mind the futile pride of the middle class man flamed up. In his contempt for the workers he forgot also to have contempt for himself.
One morning McGregor and the shipping clerk stood upon a board platform facing the street and the shipping clerk talked of parentage. "The wives of the workers here have children as cattle have calves," said the Irishman. Moved by some hidden sentiment within himself he added heartily. "Oh well, what's a man for? It's nice to see kids around the house. I've got four kids myself. You should see them play about in the garden at my place in Oak Park when I come home in the evening."
McGregor thought of Edith Carson and a faint hunger began to grow within him. A desire that was later to come near to upsetting the purpose of his life began to make itself felt. With a growl he fought against the desire and confused the Irishman by making an attack upon him. "Well how are you any better?" he asked bluntly. "Do you think your children any more important than theirs? You may have a better mind but their bodies are better and your mind hasn't made you a very striking figure as far as I can see."
Turning away from the Irishman who had begun to sputter with wrath McGregor went up an elevator to a distant part of the building to think of the Irishman's words. From time to time he spoke sharply to a workman who loitered in one of the passages between the piles of boxes and barrels. Under his hand the work in the warehouse had begun to take on order and the little grey-haired superintendent who had employed him rubbed his hands with delight.
In a corner by a window stood McGregor wondering why he also did not want to devote his life to being the father of children. In the dim light across the face of the window a fat old spider crawled slowly. In the hideous body of the insect there was something that suggested to the mind of the struggling thinker the sloth of the world. Vaguely his mind groped about trying to get hold of words and ideas to express what was in his brain. "Ugly crawling things that look at the floor," he muttered. "If they have children it is without order or orderly purpose. It is an accident like the accident of the fly that falls into the net built by the insect here. The coming of the children is like the coming of the flies, it feeds a kind of cowardice in men. In the children men hope vainly to see done what they have not the courage to try to do."
With an oath McGregor smashed with his heavy leather glove the fat thing wandering aimlessly across the light. "I must not be confused by little things. There is still going on the attempt to force me into the hole in the ground. There is a hole here in which men live and work just as there is in the mining town from which I came."
* * * * *
Hurrying out of his room that evening McGregor went to see Edith. He wanted to look at her and to think. In the little room at the back he sat for an hour trying to read a book and then for the first time shared his thoughts with her. "I am trying to discover why men are of so little importance," he said suddenly. "Are they mere tools for women? Tell me that. Tell me what women think and what they want?"
Without waiting for an answer he turned again to the reading of the book. "Oh well," he added "it doesn't need to bother me. I won't let any women lead me into being a reproductive tool for her."
Edith was alarmed. She took McGregor's outburst as a declaration of war against herself and her influence and her hands began to tremble. Then a new thought came to her. "He needs money to get on in the world," she told herself and a little thrill of joy ran through her as she thought of her own carefully guarded hoard. She wondered how she could offer it to him so that there would be no danger of a refusal.
"You're all right," said McGregor, preparing to depart. "You do not interfere with a man's thoughts."
Edith blushed and like the workmen in the warehouse looked at the floor. Something in his words startled her and when he was gone she went to her desk and taking out her bankbook turned its pages with new pleasure. Without hesitation she who indulged herself in nothing would have given all to McGregor.
And out into the street went the man, thinking of his own affairs. He dismissed from his mind the thoughts of women and children and began again to think of the stirring figures of history that had made so strong an appeal to him. As he passed over one of the bridges he stopped and stood leaning over the rail to look at the black water below. "Why has thought never succeeded in replacing action?" he asked himself. "Why are the men who write books in some way less full of meaning than the men who do things?"
McGregor was staggered by the thought that had come to him and wondered if he had started on a wrong trail by coming to the city and trying to educate himself. For an hour he stood in the darkness and tried to think things out. It began to rain but he did not mind. Into his brain began to creep a dream of a vast order coming out of disorder. He was like one standing in the presence of some gigantic machine with many intricate parts that had begun to run crazily, each part without regard to the purpose of the whole. "There is danger in thinking too," he muttered vaguely. "Everywhere there is danger, in labour, in love and in thinking. What shall I do with myself?"
McGregor turned about and threw up his hands. A new thought swept like a broad path of light across the darkness of his mind. He began to see that the soldiers who had led thousands of men into battle had appealed to him because in the working out of their purposes they had used human lives with the recklessness of gods. They had found the courage to do that and their courage was magnificent. Away down deep in the hearts of men lay sleeping a love of order and they had taken hold of that love. If they had used it badly did that matter? Had they not pointed the way?
Back into McGregor's mind came a night scene in his home town. Vividly he saw in fancy the poor unkempt little street facing the railroad tracks and the groups of striking miners huddled in the light before the door of a saloon while in the road a body of soldiers marched past, their uniforms looking grey and their faces grim in the uncertain light. "They marched," whispered McGregor. "That's what made them seem so powerful. They were just ordinary men but they went swinging along, all as one man. Something in that fact ennobled them. That's what Grant knew and what Caesar knew. That's what made Grant and Caesar seem so big. They knew and they were not afraid to use their knowledge. Perhaps they did not bother to think how it would all come out. They hoped for another kind of man to do the thinking. Perhaps they did not think of anything at all but just went ahead and tried to do each his own part.
"I will do my part here," shouted McGregor. "I will find the way." His body shook and his voice roared along the footpath of the bridge. Men stopped to look back at the big shouting figure. Two women walking past screamed and ran into the roadway. McGregor walked rapidly away toward his own room and his books. He did not know how he would be able to use the new impulse that had come to him but as he swung along through dark streets and past rows of dark buildings he thought again of the great machine running crazily and without purpose and was glad he was not a part of it. "I will keep myself to myself and be ready for what happens," he said, burning with new courage.