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The Fight by Sherwood Anderson

 

The man--the guest--came up out of the garden to the porch of the house. He had a flat even voice. He was rather bulky. Immediately he began to talk.

The man of the house--his name was John Wilder--had to make a special effort to seem attentive. "Now I shall have to listen to some more of his gabble. He is trying to be polite."

What the guest had to say amounted to nothing. He spoke of the sunset. The porch of the house faced the west. Yes, yes, there was a sunset. There was a gray stone wall at the end of the garden and, beyond, a hill. On the side of the hill were a few apple trees.

The guest was also named Wilder--Alfred Wilder. He was John Wilder's cousin.

They were both substantial-looking men. John Wilder was a lawyer, his cousin a scientist who did some sort of experimental work for a large manufacturing company in another city.

The two cousins had not seen each other for several years. Alfred Wilder's wife was in Europe with his daughter. They were spending the Summer over there.

For years there had been no correspondence between the two men. They were both born in the same Middle-Western American small town. When they were boys they lived on the same street.

There had always been something wrong with their relationship. When they were small boys they always wanted to fight.

They never did. There were other children in both families. The cousins always played together. At Christmas time they gave each other presents. It was presumed they had for each other a cousinly feeling. Some one was always presuming that. The fools!

There was a combined Christmas celebration held by the two families. John had to buy a present for Alfred and Alfred had to buy one for John.

That day at John Wilder's house, when both men were nearly fifty years old and when Alfred was speaking of the sunset, John was thinking of a Christmas of his youth.

There had been another boy on the street who had a dog with several small puppies. The boy--a special friend--had given one to John. He had been delighted and had taken it home.

But his mother did not like dogs. She would not let him keep it. He stood in tears holding the puppy in his arms. He had been commanded to take it back where he got it, but at the last moment he had an idea.

John's mother knew his cousin Alfred wanted a dog. John would keep it for a time but give it to his cousin as a Christmas present. It was such a sweet idea. It had just popped into his head. He had never intended to do it.

He would keep the puppy around. His mother would grow fond of it. When he said he would give it to his cousin he was being like the master of a vessel in a storm. He was putting into the nearest port, taking certain chances to save a vessel--or a pup.

He had got the pup in the late Fall. He kept it in the barn back of the house.

He went to see it twenty times a day. At night sometimes he crept out of bed and went to visit the pup.

His mother paid no attention. The pup had made no progress with her. John had another idea. He would so win the affection of the pup that when he gave it to his cousin and his cousin took it home, it would not stay.

The pup would keep on coming back and back. In the end his mother would surrender.

John had heard many stories about the affection of dogs. You win the affection of a dog once and he will never desert you. If you die he will come and howl over your grave.

John had felt like dying when he thought of Alfred owning the pup. He had wanted to die.

If he were dead it would pay his mother out--well, a dead boy buried in the snow. Snow on his grave, a dead pup lying across the grave. It had died of grief. Tears came into John's eyes when he thought of the scene.

As has been suggested John had got the puppy in the Fall. At Christmas time he had to give it to his cousin and Alfred had given him a cheap watch with a chain. It wasn't really his gift. His father had to put up the money.

Alfred took the pup home and John waited. It did not come back. He began to hate the pup.

He decided that Alfred had locked it up and went to see. When he got to his cousin's house his cousin wasn't at home. He had gone skating.

However, the pup was in the yard. John called but the pup would not come. He just stood wagging his tail. Then he barked as though John were some stranger.

John went away hating the dog. His hatred of his cousin had always been an unreasonable thing in him and he was often ashamed of it.

The pup grew into doghood. It was a shepherd dog.

One day John was in a field near the town. He was sixteen then. He had a gun, his father's gun, and was out hunting rabbits.

He was in a small wood and suddenly, in a nearby field, he saw the dog. He was a big shaggy fellow now, an ugly-looking dog, John thought. There were sheep in the field. The dog was creeping along a fence toward the sheep.

John had heard of sheep-killing dogs. Just at that time there had been several sheep killed one night in a field near the town.

John went along the fence toward the dog. Of course the dog knew him. He was called "Shep." When he saw John he began wagging his tail.

Undoubtedly there was a guilty look in the dog's face. John became stern. It is every good citizen's duty to kill at sight a sheep-killing dog. John had never thought of the obligation involved in citizenship until that moment. Suddenly he became filled with it. He shot the dog. He had to fire both barrels of a double-barreled gun. The first shot crippled the dog and he howled with pain, but the second shot finished him off.

It was an oddly satisfactory feeling to see him die. John was ashamed of the feeling.

He was ashamed and at the same time glad. How pleasant that he had the excuse of thinking the dog was about to attack the sheep. Of course he could not be quite sure. No one knew he had killed the dog. He told no one. It was discovered later lying dead in the field. There were sheep pastured in the field. . . . Well, Alfred had become attached to the dog and was all broken up.

It wasn't however because Alfred was particularly affectionate--John knew that. He was just rubbing it in.

He was fond of the dog because he knew in his heart John had not wanted to give it to him. He was that kind.

John wasn't like that. He remembered Alfred's present. It was really his uncle's present. John had lost the watch right away. It slipped out of his pocket. The chain wasn't fastened. Well, it was a cheap watch.

He might have kept the watch and taken it out of his pocket from time to time when Alfred was about. Neither boy wanted to give the other a present. They had to. Their parents made them.

Taking the watch out of his pocket in that way would have plagued Alfred.

John had felt that, in losing the watch, he had been in some obscure way generous. However, he never boasted of his generosity.

He just knew that Alfred wasn't generous. After John had given him the pup at Christmas it got sick. It might have died but that Alfred took extra good care of it. He even took it to a veterinary. "It just shows how some people are," John said to himself.

The two boys had grown up in a small town never having a fight. They left the town and went to different colleges. When they struck out into life they went to different cities.

Their hatred of each other continued. When they grew older and had to communicate with each other--for family reasons--they were always elaborately polite.

When John advanced a little in life--for example, when he served a term in Congress--Alfred wrote to congratulate him. John did the same thing when something good happened to Alfred. Both men got married, but in each case the other found it impossible to go to the wedding.

It happened that both men were a little ill just at that time. It was a coincidence. John was always glad it happened to him first. He used to tell himself that, had he married first and had Alfred been ill, when it came Alfred's time to marry he would have been there if he had had to get up out of his death bed.

"I would never have let him know how ill I was. Or, at least I would have thought up some other excuse."

That was just the trouble. Neither man had ever let the other know how he felt.

When they grew older it was more difficult. For years they never corresponded.

And then Alfred came to visit John. John's house was in a suburb in Chicago and Alfred had some business in the city.

He had merely intended coming to John's house for a casual call but John had urged him to stay.

The more he hated Alfred the more he kept urging him. That was because he felt guilty. He hated himself for being such a fool.

It had happened also that John's wife had taken a liking to his cousin Alfred. Sometimes the two sat together for hours. They were both interested in music. John wasn't. His wife played the piano. Sometimes she played for Alfred all evening. She played a while and then she and Alfred talked. When Alfred's wife came back from Europe, John's wife said, they would both have to come for a long visit. They would have to bring their daughter.

John and his wife had no children.

When he heard his wife ask the whole family to visit his house, John cringed. He was quite sure Alfred's daughter must be a fast, vulgar girl.

John sat in a chair reading a book and Alfred was with his wife in another room. John doubled his fists. His hatred of Alfred amused him sometimes. There was no reason for it. "It's just silly," he told himself.

On the evening when the two men were alone together on the porch of the house, John's wife was not at home. They had dined an hour earlier. Alfred's visit was almost over. He was leaving in two or three days.

He had said something about the beauty of the sunset and John had nodded his head.

Then both grew silent. The silence lasted a long time. It got rather heavy.

"Let's go for a walk," Alfred said.

John did not want to go. He did not know what else to do. His wife had gone to some kind of a women's club meeting. She would be gone all evening. He hated women's clubs.

John's house stood on a bluff that led down to a lake. Beyond a garden wall there was a stairway going down to the beach.

The two men climbed down. It was a Summer night and some young men and women were in bathing.

John and Alfred did not speak to each other going down, and on the beach the silence between them continued. Minutes seemed to become hours.

Well, it wasn't unbearable. Both men were standing it.

It was all they could stand. They walked a little way along the beach and sat on the sand.

Time passed. Each man was telling himself the same thing. "I am utterly foolish. Here is my cousin. He is all right. What is the matter with him? I had better say, 'What is the matter with me.'"

They really wanted to fight. It was an absurd idea. They should have done it when they were boys. They were men of fifty, respectable men. Presently the young people on the beach went away. They were alone together.

John got to his feet and Alfred also started to rise. The sand may have been somewhat slippery. He fell against John.

John pushed him violently, sent him sprawling. He had not intended to. He just did it. His hand wouldn't behave.

Of course, Alfred did not know that John's act was not premeditated. He hadn't judgment enough to think things out. A scientist doesn't have to use judgment as a lawyer does. He just fools around with a lot of chemicals and things.

A man's hand slips and there you are. It is so easy to misunderstand. As John told himself afterward, Alfred was that kind of a man. He had no understanding.

At bottom that was what was the matter with him. That was why John hated him.

Alfred jumped up from the sand and struck at John. Of course John struck back. A fight started on the beach in the dark.

Both men were past the fighting age. They grunted a great deal. John got a black and blue eye. He made Alfred's nose bleed. Also he tore Alfred's clothes.

It was a good thing there was no one about. Both men belonged to athletic clubs in their respective cities. They had seen prize fights. They both tried to be scientific. Afterward each man had to laugh at the spectacle the other made of himself.

They couldn't keep it up. Pretty soon they both had to stop because they were short-winded.

They were just where they were before the fight. Nothing had changed. The fight had settled nothing.

They went back up the stairs to John's house, neither man speaking. Then Alfred went to his room and changed his clothes. He packed his bags and went to the phone and called a cab.

He tried to appear calm. John thought he was just acting.

John was in a bathroom nursing his eye when Alfred came downstairs. He was putting cold water on his eye. When Alfred called he had to come. Both men had to smile.

However, they continued hating each other. Each man was laughing at the other.

Alfred made a suggestion. "You tell your wife," he said, "that I got a telegram and had to leave in a hurry."

The way he said "your wife" made John furious. She was just as good as any wife Alfred could get. And he had pretended to like John's wife. The skunk.

And then, almost at once, the cab came and Alfred was gone.

The house felt fine. Of course, John would have to make up a story to explain about his eye. When his wife came in he said that he and Alfred--his cousin--had been down on the beach. When they were coming up he fell and hurt his eye. "I should say you did," his wife said.

And then Alfred had got the telegram and had to leave. He had just time to catch a train.

John's wife was rather broken up. She said she had become very fond of Alfred. "I wish I had a cousin," she said.

She said that when Alfred's wife and daughter returned from Europe it would be nice to have them all for a long visit.

"Yes," John said. In spite of the inflamed eye he was so happy he would have agreed to anything. He got out of his wife's presence as soon as he could and took a walk about the house.

He thought the air of the house felt better in his lungs now that Alfred was gone.

As for the fight he was pretty sure he had got the best of it. Of course, Alfred hadn't a black eye but John had got in some good body punches.

"He'll be pretty sore in the morning," he thought, with satisfaction. As for the visit. Well, if it had to happen it wouldn't be for a long time. Alfred might have sense enough not to come.

And yet, John was a little in doubt. Alfred might bring his wife and daughter just to get even.

His wife might take a shine to John's wife.

John himself might like Alfred's daughter. He was fond of young girls. That thought made him miserable again.

"That would be a pretty mess, now wouldn't it?"

It would be just like Alfred to have an attractive wife and daughter. It would be a way of showing off, making believe he was himself nice.

John thought his cousin Alfred never had been very nice. He hoped the punches he had got in on Alfred's body would make him so sore that in the morning on the train he would be unable to get out of his berth.

 
 
 

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