Marching Men by Sherwood Anderson
The funeral of Nance McGregor was an event in Coal Creek. In the minds of the miners she stood for something. Fearing and hating the husband and the tall big-fisted son they had yet a tenderness for the mother and wife. "She lost her money handing us out bread," they said as they pounded on the bar in the saloon. Word ran about among them and they returned again and again to the subject. The fact that she had lost her man twice--once in the mine when the timber fell and clouded his brain, and then later when his body lay black and distorted near the door to the McCrary cut after the dreadful time of the fire in the mine--was perhaps forgotten but the fact that she had once kept a store and that she had lost her money serving them was not forgotten.
On the day of the funeral the miners came up out of the mine and stood in groups in the open street and in the vacant bake shop. The men of the night shift had their faces washed and had put white paper collars about their necks. The man who owned the saloon locked the front door and putting the keys into his pocket stood on the side-walk looking silently at the windows of Nance McGregor's rooms. Out along the runway from the mines came other miners--men of the day shift. Setting their dinner pails on the stone along the front of the saloon and crossing the railroad they kneeled and washed their blackened faces in the red stream that flowed at the foot of the embankment The voice of the preacher, a slender wasp-like young man with black hair and dark shadows under his eyes, floated out to the listening men. A train of loaded coke cars rumbled past along the back of the stores.
McGregor sat at the head of the coffin dressed in a new black suit. He stared at the wall back of the head of the preacher, not hearing, thinking his own thoughts.
Back of McGregor sat the undertaker's pale daughter. She leaned forward until she touched the back of the chair in front and sat with her face buried in a white handkerchief. Her weeping cut across the voice of the preacher in the closely crowded little room filled with miners' wives and in the midst of his prayer for the dead she was taken with a violent fit of coughing and had to get up and hurry out of the room.
After the services in the rooms above the bake shop a procession formed on Main Street. Like awkward boys the miners fell into groups and walked along behind the black hearse and the carriage in which sat the dead woman's son with the minister. The men kept looking at each other and smiling sheepishly. There had been no arrangement to follow the body to its grave and when they thought of the son and the attitude he had always maintained toward them they wondered whether or not he wanted them to follow.
And McGregor was unconscious of all this. He sat in the carriage beside the minister and with unseeing eyes stared over the heads of the horses. He was thinking of his life in the city and of what he should do there in the future, of Edith Carson, sitting in the cheap dance hall and of the evenings he had spent with her, of the barber on the park bench talking of women and of his life with his mother when he was a boy in the mining town.
As the carriage climbed slowly up the hill followed by the miners McGregor began to love his mother. For the first time he realised that her life was full of meaning and that in her woman's way she had been quite as heroic in her years of patient toil as had been her man Cracked McGregor when he ran to his death in the burning mine. McGregor's hands began to tremble and his shoulders straightened. He became conscious of the men, the dumb blackened children of toil dragging their weary legs up the hill.
For what? McGregor stood up in the carriage and turning about looked at the men. Then he fell upon his knees on the carriage seat and watched them eagerly, his soul crying out to something he thought must be hidden away among the black mass of them, something that was the keynote of their lives, something for which he had not looked and in which he had not believed.
McGregor, kneeling in the open carriage at the top of the hill and watching the marching men slowly toiling upward, had of a sudden one of those strange awakenings that are the reward of stoutness in stout souls. A strong wind lifted the smoke from the coke ovens and blew it up the face of the hill on the farther side of the valley and the wind seemed to have lifted also some of the haze that had covered his eyes. At the foot of the hill along the railroad he could see the little stream, one of the blood red streams of the mine country, and the dull red houses of the miners. The red of the coke ovens, the red sun setting behind the hills to the west and last of all the red stream flowing like a river of blood down through the valley made a scene that burned itself into the brain of the miner's son. A lump came into his throat and for a moment he tried vainly to get back his old satisfying hate of the town and the miners but it would not come. Long he looked down the hill to where the miners of the night shift marched up the hill after the carriage and the slowly moving hearse. It seemed to him that they like himself were marching up out of the smoke and the little squalid houses away from the shores of the blood red river into something new. What? McGregor shook his head slowly like an animal in pain. He wanted something for himself, for all these men. It seemed to him that he would gladly lie dead like Nance McGregor to know the secret of that want.
And then as though in answer to the cry out of his heart the file of marching men fell into step. An instantaneous impulse seemed to run through the ranks of stooped toiling figures. Perhaps they also looking backward had caught the magnificence of the picture scrawled across the landscape in black and red and had been moved by it so that their shoulders straightened and the long subdued song of life began to sing in their bodies. With a swing the marching men fell into step. Into the mind of McGregor flashed a thought of another day when he had stood upon this same hill with the half crazed man who stuffed birds and sat upon a log by the roadside reading the Bible and how he had hated these men because they did not march with orderly precision like the soldiers who came to subdue them. In a flash he knew that he who had hated the miners hated them no more. With Napoleonic insight he read a lesson into the accident of the men's falling into step behind his carriage. A big grim thought flashed into his brain. "Some day a man will come who will swing all of the workers of the world into step like that," he thought. "He will make them conquer, not one another but the terrifying disorder of life. If their lives have been wrecked by disorder it is not their fault. They have been betrayed by the ambitions of their leaders, all men have betrayed them." McGregor thought that his mind swept down over the men, that the impulses of his mind like living things ran among them, crying to them, touching them, caressing them. Love invaded his spirit and made his body tingle. He thought of the workers in the Chicago warehouse and of the millions of others workers who in that great city, in all cities, everywhere, went at the end of the day shuffling off along the streets to their houses carrying with them no song, no hope, nothing but a few paltry dollars with which to buy food and keep the endless hurtful scheme of things alive. "There is a curse on my country," he cried. "Everyone has come here for gain, to grow rich, to achieve. Suppose they should begin to want to live here. Suppose they should quit thinking of gain, leaders and followers of leaders. They are children. Suppose like children they should begin to play a bigger game. Suppose they could just learn to march, nothing else. Suppose they should begin to do with their bodies what their minds are not strong enough to do--to just learn the one simple thing, to march, whenever two or four or a thousand of them get together, to march."
McGregor's thoughts moved him so that he wanted to yell. Instead his face grew stern and he tried to command himself. "No, wait," he whispered. "Train yourself. Here is something to give point to your life. Be patient and wait." Again his thoughts swept away, running down to the advancing men. Tears came into his eyes. "Men have taught them that big lesson only when they wanted to kill. This must be different. Some one must teach them the big lesson just for their own sakes, that they also may know. They must march fear and disorder and purposelessness away. That must come first."
McGregor turned and compelled himself to sit quietly beside the minister in the carriage. He became bitter against the leaders of men, the figures in old history that had once loomed so big in his mind.
"They have half taught them the secret only to betray them," he muttered. "The men of books and of brains have done the same. That loose-jawed fellow in the street last night--there must be thousands of such, talking until their jaws hang loose like worn-out gates. Words mean nothing but when a man marches with a thousand other men and is not doing it for the glory of some king, then it will mean something. He will know then that he is a part of something real and he will catch the rhythm of the mass and glory in the fact that he is a part of the mass and that the mass has meaning. He will begin to feel great and powerful." McGregor smiled grimly. "That is what the great leaders of armies have known," he whispered. "And they have sold men out. They have used that knowledge to subdue men, to make them serve their own little ends."
McGregor continued to look back at the men and in an odd sort of way to wonder at himself and the thought that had come to him. "It can be done," he presently said aloud. "It will be done by some one, sometime. Why not by me?"
They buried Nance McGregor in the deep hole dug by her son before the log on the hillside. On the morning of his arrival he had secured permission of the mining company who owned the land to make this the burial place of the McGregors.
When the service over the grave was finished he looked about him at the miners, standing uncovered along the hill and in the road leading down into the valley, and felt that he should like to tell them what was in his mind. He had an impulse to jump upon the log beside the grave and in the presence of the green fields his father loved and across the grave of Nance McGregor shout to them saying, "Your cause shall be my cause. My brain and strength shall be yours. Your enemies I shall smite with my naked fist." Instead he walked rapidly past them and topping the hill went down toward the town into the gathering night.
McGregor could not sleep on that last night he was ever to spend in Coal Creek. When darkness came he went along the street and stood at the foot of the stairs leading to the home of the undertaker's daughter. The emotions that had swept over him during the afternoon had subdued his spirit and he wanted to be with some one who would also be subdued and quiet. When the woman did not come down the stairs to stand in the hallway as she had done in his boyhood he went up and knocked at her door. Together they went along Main Street and climbed the hill.
The undertaker's daughter walked with difficulty and was compelled to stop and sit upon a stone by the roadside. When she attempted to rise McGregor gathered her into his arms and when she protested patted her thin shoulder with his big hand and whispered to her. "Be quiet," he said. "Do not talk about anything. Just be quiet."
The nights in the hills above mining towns are magnificent. The long valleys, cut and slashed by the railroads and made ugly by the squalid little houses of the miners are half lost in the soft blackness. Out of the darkness sounds emerge. Coal cars creak and protest as they are pushed along rails. Voices cry out. With a long reverberating rattle one of the mine cars dumps its load down a metal chute into a car standing on the railroad tracks. In the winter little fires are started along the tracks by the workmen who are employed about the tipple and on summer nights the moon comes out and touches with wild beauty the banks of black smoke that drift upward from the long rows of coke ovens.
With the sick woman in his arms McGregor sat in silence on the hillside above Coal Creek and let new thoughts and new impulses play with his spirit. The love for the figure of his mother that had come to him during the afternoon returned and he took the woman of the mine country into his arms and held her closely against his breast.
The struggling man in the hills of his own country, who was trying to clear his soul of the hatred of men bred in him by the disorder of life, lifted his head and pressed the body of the undertaker's daughter hard against his own body. The woman, understanding his mood, picked with her thin fingers at his coat and wished she might die there in the darkness in the arms of the man she loved. When he became conscious of her presence and relaxed the grip of his arms about her shoulders she lay still and waited for him to forget again and again to press her tightly and let her feel in her worn-out body his massive strength and virility.
"It is a job. It is something big I can try to do," he whispered to himself and in fancy saw the great disorderly city on the western plains rocked by the swing and rhythm of men, aroused and awakening with their bodies a song of new life.