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The Flood by Sherwood Anderson

 

It came about while he was trying to do a very difficult thing. He was a college professor and was trying to write a book on the subject of values.

A good many men had written on the subject, but now he was trying his hand.

He had read, he said, everything he could find that had been written on the subject.

There had been books consumed, months spent sitting and reading books.

The man had a house of his own at the edge of the town where stood the college in which he taught, but he was not teaching that year. It was his sabbatical year. There was a whole year to be spent just on his book.

"I thought," he said, "I would go to Europe." He thought of some quiet place, say in a little Normandy town. He remembered such a town he had once visited.

It would have to be very quiet, a place where no one would know him, where he would be undisturbed.

He had got a world of notes down into little books, piled neatly on a long work table in his room. He was a small alert almost bald man and had been married, but his wife was dead. He told me that for years he had been a very lonely man.

He had lived alone in his house for several years, having no children. There was an old housekeeper. There was a walled garden.

The old housekeeper did not sleep in the house. She came there early in the morning and went to her own home at night.

Nothing had happened to the man for months at a time, through several years, he said.

He had been lonely, had felt his loneliness a good deal. He hadn't much of a way with people.

He had, I gathered, before that Summer, been rather hungry for people. "My wife was a cheerful soul, when she was here," he said, speaking of his loneliness. I got from him and others--I had never known his wife--the sense of her as a rather frivolous-seeming woman.

She had been a light-hearted little woman, fond of frills, one of the kind whose blond hair is always flying in the wind. They are always chattering, that kind. They love everyone. My friend, the scholar, had adored his wife.

And then she had died, and there he was. He was one of the sort who hurry along through streets, with books under their arms. You are always seeing such men about college towns. They go along staring at people with their impersonal eyes. If you speak to such a one he answers you absent-mindedly. "Don't bother me, please," he seems to be saying, while all the time, within himself, he is cursing himself that he cannot be more outgoing toward people.

He told me that, when his wife was alive and he was in his study, absorbed in his books, taking notes, lost in thought as one might say, preparing to write his book on values that was to be his magnum opus, she used to come in there.

She would come in, put one arm about his neck, lean over him, kiss him, and with the other hand would punch him in the stomach.

He said she used to drag him out and make him play croquet on the lawn or help with the garden. It was her money, he said, that had built the house.

He said she always called him an old stick.

"Come on, you old stick, kiss me, make love to me," she said to him sometimes. "You aren't much good to me or anyone, but you're all I've got." She would have people in, worlds of people, just anyone. When the house was full of people and the scholar, that little wide-eyed man, was standing about among them, rather confused, trying, in the midst of the hubbub, to hang onto his thoughts on the subject of values, remembering the far dim reaches of thought that occasionally came to him when he was alone . . . In him a feeling that all of man's notions of values, particularly in America, had got distorted, "perverted," he said, and that, when he was alone, when his wife and the people she was always dragging into the house did not disturb him--he had a feeling sometimes, at moments, when he was undisturbed thus, that persistent mind of his reaching out, himself impersonal, untouched . . . "I almost thought sometimes," he said, "that I had got something."

"There was," he said, "a kind of divine balance to all values to be found."

You got, to be sure, the crude sense of values that every one understands, values in land, money, possessions.

Then you got more subtle values, feeling coming in.

You got a painting, let us say by Rembrandt, selling to a rich man for fifty thousand dollars.

That is enough money to raise a dozen poor families, add some fifty or sixty citizens to the State.

The citizens being, let us say, all worthy men and women, without question of value to the State, producers, let us say.

Then you got the Rembrandt painting, hanging on a wall, say in some rich man's house, he having people into his house. He would stand before the painting.

He would brag about it as though he had himself painted it.

"I was pretty shrewd to get it at all," he would say. He would tell how he got it. Another rich man had been after it.

He talked about it as he might have talked about getting control of some industry by a skillful maneuver in the stock market.

 

Just the same it, the painting, was, in some way, adding a kind of value to that rich man's life.

It, the painting, was hanging on his wall, producing by hanging there nothing he could put his fingers on, producing no food, no clothes, nothing at all in the material world.

He himself being essentially a man of the material world. He had got rich being that.

Just the same . . .

My acquaintance, the scholar, wanted to be very just. No, that wasn't it. He said he wanted truth.

His mind reached out. He got hold of things a little sometimes, or thought he did. He took notes, he prepared to write his book.

 

He adored his wife and sometimes, often, he said he hated her. She used to laugh at him. "Your old values," she said. It seems he had been on that subject for years. He used to read papers before philosophical societies and afterward they were printed in little pamphlets by the societies. No one understood them, not even perhaps his fellow-philosophers, but he read them aloud to his wife.

"Kiss me, kiss me hard," she would say. "Do it now. Don't wait."

He wanted to kill her sometimes, he said. He said he adored her.

 

She died. He was alone. He was bitterly lonely sometimes.

People, remembering his wife, came for a time to see him, but he was cold with them. It was because he was absorbed in thought. They talked to him and he replied absent-mindedly. "Yes, that's so. Perhaps you're right." Remarks of that kind.

Wanting them just the same, he said.

 

Then, he said, the flood came. He said you couldn't account for floods.

"What's the use talking of balance?" he asked. "There is no balance."

 

He couldn't account for what happened during the Summer of that sabbatical year. He had a theory about life. I had heard it before.

"Everything in life comes in surges, floods, really. There is a whole city, thousands, even millions of people in it," he said.

"They are all, let us say, dull; they are all stupid; they are coarse and crude.

"All of them have become bored with life; they are full of hatreds for each other.

"It is not only cities. Whole nations are like that sometimes.

"How else are you to account for wars?

"And then there are other times when whole neighborhoods, whole cities, whole nations become something else. They are all irreligious, and then suddenly, without any cause any one has ever understood, ever perhaps can understand, they become religious. They are proud and they become humble, full of hatred and then suddenly filled with love.

"The individual, trying to assert himself against the mass, always without success, is drowned in a flood.

"There is a lifetime of work and thought washed away thus.

"There are these little tragedies. Are they tragedies or are they merely amusing?"

He, my friend the scholar, was seeking, as I have said, a kind of impersonal delicate balance on the subject of values.

That, in solitude, to be transcribed into words. His book, that was to be his magnum opus, the work of a lifetime justified.

There was no wife to bother him now by dragging people into the house.

There was no wife to say, "Come on, old stick, kiss me quick, now, while I want your kisses.

"Get this, get what I have to offer you while I have it to offer."

That sort of thing, of course, pitching him down off his mountain top of thought, thump.

He having to struggle for days afterwards, trying to get back up there again.

In his thinking he had, alone that Summer in his house, almost achieved the thing, the perfect balance of thought.

He said he struggled all through the Winter, Spring and early Summer. For years no one had come to see him.

Then suddenly his wife's sister, a younger sister, came. She hadn't even written him for a year, and then she telegraphed she was coming that way. It seems she was driving in a car, going to some place; he couldn't remember where.

She brought a young woman, a cousin, with her. The cousin, like his wife's sister, was another frivolous one.

And then the scholar's brother came. He was a big boastful youngish man who was in business.

He only came to stay a day or two, but, like the scholar, he had lost his wife. He was attracted to the two young women.

He stayed on and on because of them. They may have stayed on and on because of him.

He was a man who had a big car. He brought other men into the house.

Suddenly the scholar's house was filled with men and women. There was a good deal of gin-drinking.

There was a flood of people. The scholar's brother brought in a phonograph and wanted to install a radio.

There were dances in the evening.

Even the old housekeeper caught it. She had always been rather quiet, a staid, sad old woman. One evening the scholar said, after a day, during the afternoon of which he had struggled and struggled, alone in his room, the door shut, sound coming in nevertheless, coarse sounds, he said, sound of women's laughter, men's voices.

He said the two young women who had come there and who he believed had stayed because of his brother--he having stayed because of them--the two had met other people of the town. They filled his house with people.

He had, however, almost got something he was after in spite of them.

"I swear I almost had it."

"Had what?"

"Why, my definition of values. There had to be something, you see, at the very core of my book."

"Yes, of course."

"I mean one place in my book where everything was defined. In simple words, so that everyone could understand."

"Of course."

I shall never forget the scholar when he was telling me all this, the puzzled, half-hurt, look in his eyes.

He said they had even got his housekeeper going. "What do you think of it--she also drinking gin?"

There was a crash of sounds that afternoon in his house.

He was alone in his room upstairs in his house, in his study.

They had got the sad, staid old housekeeper going. He said his brother was very efficient. They had her dancing to the music of the phonograph. The scholar's brother, that big blustering bragging man--he was a manufacturer of some sort--was dancing with the housekeeper--with that staid, sad old woman.

The others had got into a circle.

The phonograph was going.

What happened was that the scholar's sister--just, I imagine from all he said and from what others afterward said of her, a miniature edition, a new printing one might say, of his dead wife . . .

She, it seems, came running upstairs and burst into his room, her blond hair flying. She was laughing.

"I had almost got it," he said.

"What? Oh, yes. Your definition."

"Yes, just the definition I had been after for years."

"I was about to write it down. It embraced all, everything I had to say."

She burst in.

I gather the sister must have been at least a little in love with the man and that he, after all, did not want the bragging, blustering brother to have her. He admitted that.

She rushed in.

"Come on, you old stick," she said to him.

He said he tried to explain to her. "I made a fight," he said.

He got up from his desk and tried to reason with her. She had fairly taken possession of his house.

He tried to tell her what he was up to. He spoke of standing there, beside his desk, where he sat when he told me all this, trying to explain all this to her.

I thought the scholar got a bit vulgar when he told me of that moment.

"There was nothing doing," he said. He had got that expression from the young woman, his wife's sister.

She was laughing at him as his wife had formerly done; she wouldn't have kissed him.

She wouldn't have said, "Kiss me quick, you old stick, while I feel that way."

I gathered she merely dragged him downstairs. He said he went with her, couldn't help himself, couldn't, of course, be rude to her, his wife's sister.

He went with her and saw his staid, sad old housekeeper acting like that.

The housekeeper didn't seem to care whether he saw or not. She had broken loose. The whole house had broken loose.

 

And so, in the end, my acquaintance, the scholar, didn't care either.

"I was in the flood," he said. "What was the use?"

He was a little afraid that, if he didn't do something about it, his bragging brother, or some man like him, might get his wife's sister.

He didn't quite want that to happen. So that evening, when he was alone with her, he proposed to her.

He said she called him an old stick. "It must have been a family expression," he said. Something of the scholar came back into him when he said that.

He had been caught in a flood. He had let go.

He had proposed to his wife's sister, in the garden back of his house, under an apple tree, near the croquet grounds, and she had said . .

He didn't tell me what she said. I imagine she said, "Yes, you old stick."

"Kiss me quick while I feel that way," she said.

That, at least, gets a certain balance to my tale.

The scholar; however, says there is no balance.

"There are only floods, one flood following another," he says. When I talked to him of all this he was a bit discouraged.

However, he seemed cheerful enough.

 
 
 

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