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Like a Queen by Sherwood Anderson

 

There is a great deal of talk made about beauty but no one defines it. It clings to some people.

Among women, now . . . the figure is something, of course, the face, the lips, the eyes.

The way the head sits on the shoulders.

The way a woman walks across the room may mean everything.

I myself have seen beauty in the most unexpected places. What has happened to me has happened also to a great many other men.

I remember a friend I had formerly in Chicago. He had something like a nervous breakdown and went down into Missouri--to the Ozark Mountains, I think.

One day he was walking on a mountain road and passed a cabin. It was a poor place with lean dogs in the yard.

There were a great many dirty children, a slovenly woman and one young girl. The young girl had gone from the cabin to a wood-pile in the yard.

She had gathered an armful of wood and was walking toward the house.

There in the road was my friend. He looked up and saw her.

There must have been something--the time, the place, the mood of the man. Ten years later he was still speaking of that woman, of her extraordinary beauty.

And there was another man. He was from Central Illinois and was raised on a farm. Later he went to Chicago and became a successful lawyer out there. He was the father of a large family.

The most beautiful woman he ever saw was with some horse traders that passed the farm where he lived as a boy. When he was in his cups one night he told me that all of his night dreams, the kind men have and that are concerned with women, were always concerned with her. He said he thought it was the way she walked. The odd part of it was she had a bruised eye. Perhaps, he said, she was the wife or the mistress of one of the horse traders.

It was a cold day and she was barefooted. The road was muddy. The horse traders, with their wagon, followed by a lot of bony horses, passed the field where the young man was at work. They did not speak to him. You know how such people stare.

And there she came along the road alone.

It may just have been another case of a rare moment for that man.

He had some sort of tool in his hand, a corn-cutting knife, he said. The woman looked at him. The horse traders looked back. They laughed. The corn-cutting knife dropped from his hand. Women must know when they register like that.

And thirty years later she was still registering.

All of which brings me to Alice.

Alice used to say the whole problem of life lay in getting past what she called the "times between."

I wonder where Alice is. She was a stout woman who had once been a singer. Then she lost her voice.

When I knew her she had blue veins spread over her red cheeks and short gray hair. She was the kind of woman who can never keep her stockings up. They were always falling down over her shoes.

She had stout legs and broad shoulders and had grown mannish as she grew older.

Such women can manage. Being a singer, of some fame once, she had made a great deal of money. She spent money freely.

For one thing, she knew a good many very rich men, bankers and others.

They took her advice about their daughters and sons. A son of such a man got into trouble. Well, he got mixed up with some woman, a waitress or a servant. The man sent for Alice. The son was resentful and determined.

The girl might be all right and then again . . .

Alice took the girl's part. "Now, you look here," she said to the banker. "You know nothing about people. Those who are interested in people do not get as rich as you have.

"And you do not understand your son either. This affair he has got into. His finest feelings may be involved in this matter."

Alice simply swept the banker, and perhaps his wife, out of the picture. "You people." She laughed when she said that.

Of course, the son was immature. Alice did really seem to know a lot about people. She took the boy in hand--went to see the girl.

She had been through dozens of such experiences. For one thing, the boy wasn't made to feel a fool. Sons of rich men, when they have anything worth while in them, go through periods of desperation, like other young men. They go to college and read books.

Life in such men's houses is something pretty bad. Alice knew about all that. The rich man may go off and get himself a mistress--the boy's mother a lover. Such things happen.

Still the people are not so bad. There are all sorts of rich men, just as there are of poor and middle-class men.

After we became friends Alice used to explain a lot of things to me. At that time I was always worried about money. She laughed at me. "You take money too seriously," she said.

"Money is simply a way of expressing power," she said. "Men who get rich understand that. They get money, a lot of it, because they aren't afraid of it.

"The poor man or the middle-class man goes to a banker timidly. That will never do.

"If you have your own kind of power, show your hand. Make the man fear you in your own field. For example, you can write. Your rich man cannot do that. It is quite all right to exercise your own power. Have faith in yourself. If it is necessary to make him a little afraid, do so. The fact that you can do so, that you can express yourself makes you seem strange to him. Suppose you uncovered his life. The average rich man has got his rotten side and his weak side.

"And for Heaven's sake do not forget that he has his good side.

"You may go at trying to understand such a one like a fool if you want to--I mean with all sorts of preconceived notions. You could show just his rottenness, a distorted picture, ruin his vanity.

"Your poor man, or your small merchant or lawyer. Such men haven't the temptations as regards women, for example, that rich men have. There are plenty of women grafters about--some of them are physically beautiful, too.

"The poor man or the middle-class man goes about condemning the rich man for the rotten side of his life, but what rottenness is there in him?

"What secret desires has he, what greeds, buried under a placid, commonplace face?"

In the matter of the rich man's son and the woman he had got involved with, Alice in some way did manage to get at the bottom of things.

I gathered that in such affairs she took it for granted people were on the whole better than others thought them or than they thought themselves. She made the idea seem more reasonable than you would ever have thought possible.

It may be that Alice really had brains. I have met few enough people I thought had.

Most people are so one-sided, so specialized. They can make money, or fight prize-fights or paint pictures, or they are men who are physically attractive and can get women who are physically beautiful, women who can tie men up in knots.

Or they are just plain dubs. There are plenty of dubs everywhere.

Alice swept dubs aside; she did not bother with them. She could be as cruel as a cold wind.

She got money when she wanted it. She lived around in fine houses.

Once she got a thousand dollars for me. I was in New York and broke. One day I was walking on Fifth Avenue. You know how a writer is when he cannot write. Months of that for me. My money gone. Everything I wrote was dead.

I had grown a little shabby. My hair was long and I was thin.

Lots of times I have thought of suicide when I cannot write. Every writer has such times.

Alice took me to a man in an office building. "You give this man a thousand dollars."

"What the devil, Alice? What for?"

"Because I say so. He can write, just as you can make money. He has talent. He is discouraged now, is on his uppers. He has lost his pride in life, in himself. Look at the poor fool's lips trembling."

It was quite true. I was in a bad state.

In me a great surge of love for Alice. Such a woman! She became beautiful to me.

She was talking to the man.

"The only value I can be to you is now and then when I do something like this."

"Like what?"

"When I tell you where and how you can use a thousand dollars and use it sensibly.

"To give it to a man who is as good as yourself, who is better. When he is down--when his pride is low."

Alice came from the mountains of East Tennessee. You would not believe it. When she was twenty-four, at the height of her power as a singer, she had seemed tall. The reason I speak of it was that when I knew her she appeared short--and thick.

Once I saw a photograph of her when she was young.

She was half vulgar, half lovely.

She was a mountain woman who could sing. An older man, who had been her lover, told me that at twenty-four and until she was thirty, she was like a queen.

"She walked like a queen," he said. To see her walk across a room or across the stage was something not to be forgotten.

She had lovers, a dozen of them in her time.

Then she had a bad period--for two years she drank and gambled.

Her life had apparently become useless to her and she tried to throw it away.

But people who believe in themselves make others believe. Men who had been lovers of Alice never forgot her. They never went back on her.

They said she gave them something. She was sixty when I knew her.

Once she took me up to the Adirondack Mountains. We went together in a big car with a Negro driver to a house that was half a palace. It took us two days to get there.

The whole outfit belonged to some rich man.

It was the time when Alice said she was flat. "I got you something once when you were flat, now you come with me," she had said when she saw me in New York.

She did not mean flat as regards money. She was spiritually flat.

So we went and stayed alone together in a big house. There were servants there. They had been provided for. I don't know how.

We had been there for a week and Alice had been silent. One evening we went to walk.

This was a wild country. There was a lake before the house and a mountain at the back.

It was a chilly night with a clear sky and a moon and we walked in a country road.

Then we began to climb the mountains. I can remember Alice's thick legs and her stockings coming down.

She was short-winded too. She kept stopping to puff and blow.

We plowed on silently like that. Alice, when herself, was seldom silent.

We got clear to the top of the mountain before she spoke.

She talked about what flatness is, how it hits people--floors them. Houses gone all flat, people all flat, life flat. "You think I am courageous," she said. "The hell with that. I haven't the courage of a mouse."

We sat down on a stone and she began to tell me of her life. It was an odd complex story, told in that way, in little jerks by an old woman.

There it was, the whole thing. She had come down out of the Tennessee mountains as a young girl to the city of Nashville, in Tennessee.

She got in with a singing master there who knew she could sing. "Well, I took him as a lover. He wasn't so bad."

The man spent money on her; he interested some Nashville rich man.

That man also may have been her lover. Alice did not say. There were plenty of others.

One of them--he must have amounted to less than any of the others--she had loved.

She said he was a young poet. There was something crooked in him. He did sneaking things.

That was when she was past thirty and he was twenty-five. She lost her head, she said, and of course lost him.

It was then she went to drinking, gambled, went broke. She declared she lost him because she loved him too much.

"But why wasn't he any good? Why did you have to love that sort?"

She did not know why. It had happened.

It must have been the experience that had tempered her.

But I was speaking of beauty in people, what an odd thing it is, how it appears, disappears and reappears.

I got a glimpse of it in Alice that night.

It was when we were coming back to the house, from the mountain, down the road.

We were on a hillside and stout Alice in front. There was a muddy stretch of road and then a woods and then an open space.

The moonlight was in the open space and I was in the woods, in the darkness of the woods, but a few steps behind.

She crossed the open space ahead of me and there it was.

The thing lasted but a fleeting second. I think that all of the rich powerful men Alice had known, who had given her money, helped her when she needed help, and who have got so much from her, must have seen what I saw then. It was what the man saw in the woman by the mountain cabin and what the other man saw in the horse trader's woman in the road.

Alice when she said she was flat wasn't flat. Alice trying to shake off the memory of an unsuccessful love.

She was walking across the open moonlit stretch of road like a queen, as that man who was once her lover said she used to walk across a room or across a stage.

The mountains out of which she came as a child must have been in her at the moment, and the moon and the night.

Myself in love with her, madly, for a moment.

Is anyone in love longer than that?

Alice shaking her head slightly. There may have been a trick of the light. Her stride lengthened and she became tall, and young. I remember stopping in the woods and staring. I was like the two other men of whom I have spoken. I had a cane in my hand and it fell to the ground. I was like the man in the road and the other man in the field.

 
 
 

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