Marching Men by Sherwood Anderson
Beaut McGregor went home to Pennsylvania to bury his mother and on a summer afternoon walked again on the streets of his native town. From the station he went at once to the empty bake-shop, above which he had lived with his mother but he did not stay there. For a moment he stood bag in hand listening to the voices of the miners' wives in the room above and then put the bag behind an empty box and hurried away. The voices of women broke the stillness of the room in which he stood. Their thin sharpness hurt something within him and he could not bear the thought of the equally thin sharp silence he knew would fall upon the women who were attending his mother's body in the room above when he came into the presence of the dead.
Along Main Street he went to a hardware store and from there went to the mine office. Then with a pick and shovel on his shoulder he began to climb the hill up which he had walked with his father when he was a lad. On the train homeward bound an idea had come to him. "I will her among the bushes on the hillside that looks down into the fruitful valley," he told himself. The details of a religious discussion between two labourers that had gone on one day during the noon hour at the warehouse had come into his mind and as the train ran eastward he for the first time found himself speculating on the possibility of a life after death. Then he brushed the thoughts aside. "Anyway if Cracked McGregor does come back it is there you will find him, sitting on the log on the hillside," he thought.
With the tools on his shoulder McGregor climbed the long hillside road, now deep with black dust. He was going to dig the grave for the burial of Nance McGregor. He did not glare at the miners who passed swinging their dinner-pails as they had done in the old days but looked at the ground and thought of the dead woman and a little wondered what place a woman would yet come to occupy in his own life. On the hillside the wind blew sharply and the great boy just emerging into manhood worked vigorously making the dirt fly. When the hole had grown deep he stopped and looked to where in the valley below a man who was hoeing corn shouted to a woman who stood on the porch of a farm house. Two cows that stood by a fence in a field lifted up their heads and bawled lustily. "It is the place for the dead to lie," whispered McGregor. "When my own time comes I shall be brought up here." An idea came to him. "I will have father's body moved," he told himself. "When I have made some money I will have that done. Here we shall all lie in the end, all of us McGregors."
The thought that had come to McGregor pleased him and he was pleased also with himself for thinking the thought. The male in him made him throw back his shoulders. "We are two of a feather, father and me," he muttered, "two of a feather and mother has not understood either of us. Perhaps no woman was ever intended to understand us."
Jumping out of the hole he strode over the crest of the hill and began the descent toward the town. It was late afternoon and the sun had gone down behind clouds. "I wonder if I understand myself, if any one understands," he thought as he went swiftly along with the tools clanking on his shoulder.
McGregor did not want to go back to the town and to the dead woman in the little room. He thought of the miners' wives, attendants to the dead, who would sit with crossed hands looking at him and turned out of the road to sit on the fallen log where once on a Sunday afternoon he had sat with the black-haired boy who worked in the poolroom and where the daughter of the undertaker had come to sit beside him.
And then up the long hill came the woman herself. As she drew near he recognised her tall figure and for some reason a lump came into his throat She had seen him depart from the town with the pick and shovel on his shoulder and after waiting what she thought an interval long enough to still the tongues of gossip had followed. "I wanted to talk with you," she said, climbing over logs and coming to sit beside him.
For a long time the man and woman sat in silence and stared at the town in the valley below. McGregor thought she had grown more pale than ever and looked at her sharply. His mind, more accustomed to look critically at women than had been the mind of the boy who had once sat talking to her on the same log, began to inventory her body. "She is already becoming stooped," he thought. "I would not want to make love to her now."
Along the log toward him moved the undertaker's daughter and with a swift impulse toward boldness slipped a thin hand into his. She began to talk of the dead woman lying in the upstairs room in the town. "We have been friends since you went away," she explained. "She liked to talk of you and I liked that too."
Made bold by her own boldness the woman hurried on. "I do not want you to misunderstand me," she said. "I know I can't get you. I'm not thinking of that."
She began to talk of her own affairs and of the dreariness of life with her father but McGregor's mind could not centre itself on her talk. When they started down the hill he had the impulse to take her in his arms and carry her as Cracked McGregor had once carried him but was so embarrassed that he did not offer to help her. He thought that for the first time some one from his native town had come close to him and he watched her stooped figure with an odd new feeling of tenderness. "I won't be alive long, maybe not a year. I've got the consumption," she whispered softly as he left her at the entrance to the hallway leading up to her home, and McGregor was so stirred by her words that he turned back and spent another hour wandering alone on the hillside before he went to see the body of his mother.
* * * * *
In the room above the bakery McGregor sat at an open window and looked down into the dimly lighted street. In a corner of the room lay his mother in a coffin and two miners' wives sat in the darkness behind him. All were silent and embarrassed.
McGregor leaned out of the window and watched a group of miners who gathered at a corner. He thought of the undertaker's daughter, now nearing death, and wondered why she had suddenly come so close to him. "It is not because she is a woman, I know that," he told himself and tried to dismiss the matter from his mind by watching the people in the street below.
In the mining town a meeting was being held. A box lay at the edge of the sidewalk and upon it climbed that same young Hartnet who had once talked to McGregor and who made his living by gathering birds' eggs and trapping squirrels in the hills. He was frightened and talked rapidly. Presently he introduced a large man with a flat nose who, when he had in turn climbed upon the box, began to tell stories and anecdotes designed to make the miners laugh.
McGregor listened. He wished the undertaker's daughter were there to sit in the darkened room beside him. He thought he would like to tell her of his life in the city and of how disorganised and ineffective all modern life seemed to him. Sadness invaded his mind and he thought of his dead mother and of how this other woman would presently die. "It's just as well. Perhaps there is no other way, no orderly march toward an orderly end. Perhaps one has to die and return to nature to achieve that," he whispered to himself.
In the street below the man upon the box, who was a travelling socialist orator, began to talk of the coming social revolution. As he talked it seemed to McGregor that his jaw had become loose from much wagging and that his whole body was loosely put together and without force. The speaker danced up and down on the box and his arms flapped about and these also seemed loose, not a part of the body.
"Vote with us and the thing is done," he shouted. "Are you going to let a few men run things forever? Here you live like beasts paying tribute to your masters. Arouse yourselves. Join us in the struggle. You yourselves can be masters if you will only think so."
"You will have to do something more than think," roared McGregor, as he leaned far out at the window. Again as always when he had heard men saying words he was blind with anger. Sharply he remembered the walks he had sometimes taken at night in the city streets and the air of disorderly ineffectiveness all about him. And here in the mining town it was the same. On every side of him appeared blank empty faces and loose badly knit bodies.
"Mankind should be like a great fist ready to smash and to strike. It should be ready to knock down what stands in its way," he cried, astonishing the crowd in the street and frightening into something like hysterics the two women who sat with him beside the dead woman in the darkened room.