Poor White by Sherwood Anderson
Clara Butterworth left Bidwell, Ohio, in September of the year in which Steve Hunter's plant-setting machine company went into the hands of a receiver, and in January of the next year that enterprising young man, together with Tom Butterworth, bought the plant. In March a new company was organized and at once began making Hugh's corn-cutting machine, a success from the beginning. The failure of the first company and the sale of the plant had created a furor in the town. Both Steve and Tom Butterworth could, however, point to the fact that they had held on to their stock and lost their money in common with every one else. Tom had indeed sold his stock because he needed ready money, as he explained, but had shown his good faith by buying again just before the failure. "Do you suppose I would have done that had I known what was up?" he asked the men assembled in the stores. "Go look at the books of the company. Let's have an investigation here. You will find that Steve and I stuck to the rest of the stockholders. We lost our money with the rest. If any one was crooked and when they saw a failure coming went and got out from under at the expense of some one else, it wasn't Steve and me. The books of the company will show we were game. It wasn't our fault the plant-setting machine wouldn't work."
In the back room of the bank, John Clark and young Gordon Hart cursed Steve and Tom, who, they declared, had sold them out. They had lost no money by the failure, but on the other hand they had gained nothing. The four men had sent in a bid for the plant when it was put up for sale, but as they expected no competition, they had not bid very much. It had gone to a firm of Cleveland lawyers who bid a little more, and later had been resold at private sale to Steve and Tom. An investigation was started and it was found that Steve and Tom held large blocks of stock in the defunct company, while the bankers held practically none. Steve openly said that he had known of the possibility of failure for some time and had warned the larger stock-holders and asked them not to sell their stock. "While I was working my head off trying to save the company, what were they up to?" he asked sharply, and his question was repeated in the stores and in the homes of the people.
The truth of the matter, and the thing the town never found out, was that from the beginning Steve had intended to get the plant for himself, but at the last had decided it would be better to take some one in with him. He was afraid of John Clark. For two or three days he thought about the matter and decided that the banker was not to be trusted. "He's too good a friend to Tom Butterworth," he told himself. "If I tell him my scheme, he'll tell Tom. I'll go to Tom myself. He's a money maker and a man who knows the difference between a bicycle and a wheelbarrow when you put one of them into bed with him."
Steve drove out to Tom's house late one evening in September. He hated to go but was convinced it would be better to do so. "I don't want to burn all my bridges behind me," he told himself. "I've got to have at least one friend among the solid men here in town. I've got to do business with these rubes, maybe all my life. I can't shut myself off too much, at least not yet a while."
When Steve got to the farm he asked Tom to get into his buggy, and the two men went for a long drive. The horse, a gray gelding with one blind eye hired for the occasion from liveryman Neighbors, went slowly along through the hill country south of Bidwell. He had hauled hundreds of young men with their sweethearts. Ambling slowly along, thinking perhaps of his own youth and of the tyranny of man that had made him a gelding, he knew that as long as the moon shone and the intense voiceless quiet continued to reign over the two people in the buggy, the whip would not come out of its socket and he would not be expected to hurry.
On the September evening, however, the gray gelding had behind him such a load as he had never carried before. The two people in the buggy on that evening were not foolish, meandering sweethearts, thinking only of love, and allowing themselves to be influenced in their mood by the beauty of the night, the softness of the black shadows in the road, and the gentle night winds that crept down over the crests of hills. They were solid business men, mentors of the new age, the kind of men who, in the future of America and perhaps of the whole world, were to be the makers of governments, the molders of public opinion, the owners of the press, the publishers of books, buyers of pictures, and in the goodness of their hearts, the feeders of an occasional starving and improvident poet, lost on other roads. In any event the two men sat in the buggy and the gray gelding meandered along through the hills. Great splashes of moonlight lay in the road. By chance it was on the same evening that Clara Butterworth left home to become a student in the State University. Remembering the kindness and tenderness of the rough old farm hand, Jim Priest, who had brought her to the station, she lay in her berth in the sleeping car and looked out at the roads, washed with moonlight, that slid away into the distance like ghosts. She thought of her father on that night and of the misunderstanding that had grown up between them. For the moment she was tender with regrets. "After all, Jim Priest and my father must be a good deal alike," she thought. "They have lived on the same farm, eaten the same food; they both love horses. There can't be any great difference between them." All night she thought of the matter. An obsession, that the whole world was aboard the moving train and that, as it ran swiftly along, it was carrying the people of the world into some strange maze of misunderstanding, took possession of her. So strong was it that it affected her deeply buried unconscious self and made her terribly afraid. It seemed to her that the walls of the sleeping-car berth were like the walls of a prison that had shut her away from the beauty of life. The walls seemed to close in upon her. The walls, like life itself, were shutting in upon her youth and her youthful desire to reach a hand out of the beauty in herself to the buried beauty in others. She sat up in the berth and forced down a desire in herself to break the car window and leap out of the swiftly moving train into the quiet night bathed with moonlight. With girlish generosity she took upon her own shoulders the responsibility for the misunderstanding that had grown up between herself and her father. Later she lost the impulse that led her to come to that decision, but during that night it persisted. It was, in spite of the terror caused by the hallucination regarding the moving walls of the berth that seemed about to crush her and that came back time after time, the most beautiful night she had ever lived through, and it remained in her memory throughout her life. She in fact came to think later of that night as the time when, most of all, it would have been beautiful and right for her to have been able to give herself to a lover. Although she did not know it, the kiss on the cheek from the bewhiskered lips of Jim Priest had no doubt something to do with that thought when it came.
And while the girl fought her battle with the strangeness of life and tried to break through the imaginary walls that shut her off from the opportunity to live, her father also rode through the night. With a shrewd eye he watched the face of Steve Hunter. It had already begun to get a little fat, but Tom realized suddenly that it was the face of a man of ability. There was something about the jowls that made Tom, who had dealt much in live stock, think of the face of a pig. "The man goes after what he wants. He's greedy," the farmer thought. "Now he's up to something. To get what he wants he'll give me a chance to get something I want. He's going to make some kind of proposal to me in connection with the factory. He's hatched up a scheme to shut Gordon Hart and John Clark out because he doesn't want too many partners. All right, I'll go in with him. Either one of them would have done the same thing had they had the chance."
Steve smoked a black cigar and talked. As he grew more sure of himself and the affairs that absorbed him, he also became more smooth and persuasive in the matter of words. He talked for a time of the necessity of certain men's surviving and growing constantly stronger and stronger in the industrial world. "It's necessary for the good of the community," he said. "A few fairly strong men are a good thing for a town, but if they are fewer and relatively stronger it's better." He turned to look sharply at his companion. "Well," he exclaimed, "we talked there in the bank of what we would do when things went to pieces down at the factory, but there were too many men in the scheme. I didn't realize it at the time, but I do now." He knocked the ashes off his cigar and laughed. "You know what they did, don't you?" he asked. "I asked you all not to sell any of your stock. I didn't want to get the whole town bitter. They wouldn't have lost anything. I promised to see them through, to get the plant for them at a low price, to put them in the way to make some real money. They played the game in a small-town way. Some men can think of thousands of dollars, others have to think of hundreds. It's all their minds are big enough to comprehend. They snatch at a little measly advantage and miss the big one. That's what these men have done."
For a long time the two rode in silence. Tom, who had also sold his stock, wondered if Steve knew. He decided he did. "However, he's decided to deal with me. He needs some one and has chosen me," he thought. He made up his mind to be bold. After all, Steve was young. Only a year or two before he was nothing but a young upstart and the very boys in the street laughed at him. Tom grew a little indignant, but was careful to take thought before he spoke. "Perhaps, although he's young and don't look like much, he's a faster and shrewder thinker than any of us," he told himself.
"You do talk like a fellow who has something up his sleeve," he said laughing. "If you want to know, I sold my stock the same as the others. I wasn't going to take a chance of being a loser if I could help it. It may be the small-town way, but you know things maybe I don't know. You can't blame me for living up to my lights. I always did believe in the survival of the fittest and I got a daughter to support and put through college. I want to make a lady of her. You ain't got any kids yet and you're younger. Maybe you want to take chances I don't want to take. How do I know what you're up to?"
Again the two rode in silence. Steve had prepared himself for the talk. He knew there was a chance that, in its turn, the corn-cutting machine Hugh had invented might not prove practical and that in the end he might be left with a factory on his hands and with nothing to manufacture in it. He did not, however, hesitate. Again, as on the day in the bank when he was confronted by the two older men, he made a bluff. "Well, you can come in or stay out, just as you wish," he said a little sharply. "I'm going to get hold of that factory, if I can, and I'm going to manufacture corn-cutting machines. Already I have promises of orders enough to keep running for a year. I can't take you in with me and have it said around town you were one of the fellows who sold out the small investors. I've got a hundred thousand dollars of stock in the company. You can have half of it. I'll take your note for the fifty thousand. You won't ever have to pay it. The earnings of the new factory will clean you up. You got to come clean, though. Of course you can go get John Clark and come out and make an open fight to get the factory yourselves, if you want to. I own the rights to the corn-cutting machine and will take it somewhere else and manufacture it. I don't mind telling you that, if we split up, I will pretty well advertise what you three fellows did to the small investors after I asked you not to do it. You can all stay here and own your empty factory and get what satisfaction you can out of the love and respect you'll get from the people. You can do what you please. I don't care. My hands are clean. I ain't done anything I'm ashamed of, and if you want to come in with me, you and I together will pull off something in this town we don't neither one of us have to be ashamed of."
The two men drove back to the Butterworth farm house and Tom got out of the buggy. He intended to tell Steve to go to the devil, but as they drove along the road, he changed his mind. The young school teacher from Bidwell, who had come on several occasions to call on his daughter Clara, was on that night abroad with another young woman. He sat in a buggy with his arm around her waist and drove slowly through the hill country. Tom and Steve drove past them and the farmer, seeing in the moonlight the woman in the arms of the man, imagined his daughter in her place. The thought made him furious. "I'm losing the chance to be a big man in the town here in order to play safe and be sure of money to leave to Clara, and all she cares about is to galavant around with some young squirt," he thought bitterly. He began to see himself as a wronged and unappreciated father. When he got out of the buggy, he stood for a moment by the wheel and looked hard at Steve. "I'm as good a sport as you are," he said finally. "Bring around your stock and I'll give you the note. That's all it will be, you understand: just my note. I don't promise to back it up with any collateral and I don't expect you to offer it for sale." Steve leaned out of the buggy and took him by the hand. "I won't sell your note, Tom," he said. "I'll put it away. I want a partner to help me. You and I are going to do things together."
The young promoter drove off along the road, and Tom went into the house and to bed. Like his daughter he did not sleep. For a time he thought of her and in imagination saw her again in the buggy with the school teacher who had her in his arms. The thought made him stir restlessly about beneath the sheets. "Damn women anyway," he muttered. To relieve his mind he thought of other things. "I'll make out a deed and turn three of my farms over to Clara," he decided shrewdly. "If things go wrong we won't be entirely broke. I know Charlie Jacobs in the court-house over at the county seat. I ought to be able to get a deed recorded without any one knowing it if I oil Charlie's hand a little."
* * * * *
Clara's last two weeks in the Woodburn household were spent in the midst of a struggle, no less intense because no words were said. Both Henderson Wood, burn and his wife felt that Clara owed them an explanation of the scene at the front door with Frank Metcalf. When she did not offer it they were offended. When he threw open the door and confronted the two people, the plow manufacturer had got an impression that Clara was trying to escape Frank Metcalf's embraces. He told his wife that he did not think she was to blame for the scene on the front porch. Not being the girl's father he could look at the matter coldly. "She's a good girl," he declared. "That beast of a Frank Metcalf is all to blame. I daresay he followed her home. She's upset now, but in the morning she'll tell us the story of what happened."
The days went past and Clara said nothing. During her last week in the house she and the two older people scarcely spoke. The young woman was in an odd way relieved. Every evening she went to dine with Kate Chanceller who, when she heard the story of the afternoon in the suburb and the incident on the porch, went off without Clara's knowing of it and had a talk with Henderson Woodburn in his office. After the talk the manufacturer was puzzled and just a little afraid of both Clara and her friend. He tried to tell his wife about it, but was not very clear. "I can't make it out," he said. "She is the kind of woman I can't understand, that Kate. She says Clara wasn't to blame for what happened between her and Frank Metcalf, but don't want to tell us the story, because she thinks young Metcalf wasn't to blame either." Although he had been respectful and courteous as he listened to Kate's talk, he grew angry when he tried to tell his wife what she had said. "I'm afraid it was just a lot of mixed up nonsense," he declared. "It makes me glad we haven't a daughter. If neither of them were to blame what were they up to? What's getting the matter with the women of the new generation? When you come down to it what's the matter with Kate Chanceller?"
The plow manufacturer advised his wife to say nothing to Clara. "Let's wash our hands of it," he suggested. "She'll go home in a few days now and we will say nothing about her coming back next year. Let's be polite, but act as though she didn't exist."
Clara accepted the new attitude of her uncle and aunt without comment. In the afternoon she did not come home from the University but went to Kate's apartment. The brother came home and after dinner played on the piano. At ten o'clock Clara started home afoot and Kate accompanied her. The two women went out of their way to sit on a bench in a park. They talked of a thousand hidden phases of life Clara had hardly dared think of before. During all the rest of her life she thought of those last weeks in Columbus as the most deeply satisfactory time she ever lived through. In the Woodburn house she was uncomfortable because of the silence and the hurt, offended look on her aunt's face, but she did not spend much time there. In the morning Henderson Woodburn ate his breakfast alone at seven, and clutching his ever present portfolio of papers, was driven off to the plow factory. Clara and her aunt had a silent breakfast at eight, and then Clara also hurried away. "I'll be out for lunch and will go to Kate's for dinner," she said as she went out of her aunt's presence, and she said it, not with the air of one asking permission as had been her custom before the Frank Metcalf incident, but as one having the right to dispose of her own time. Only once did her aunt break the frigid air of offended dignity she had assumed. One morning she followed Clara to the front door, and as she watched her go down the steps from the front porch to the walk that led to the street, called to her. Some faint recollection of a time of revolt in her own youth perhaps came to her. Tears came into her eyes. To her the world was a place of terror, where wolf-like men prowled about seeking women to devour, and she was afraid something dreadful would happen to her niece. "If you don't want to tell me anything, it's all right," she said bravely, "but I wish you felt you could." When Clara turned to look at her, she hastened to explain. "Mr. Woodburn said I wasn't to bother you about it and I won't," she added quickly. Nervously folding and unfolding her arms, she turned to stare up the street with the air of a frightened child that looks into a den of beasts. "O Clara, be a good girl," she said. "I know you're grown up now, but, O Clara, do be careful! Don't get into trouble."
The Woodburn house in Columbus, like the Butterworth house in the country south of Bidwell, sat on a hill. The street fell away rather sharply as one went toward the business portion of the city and the street car line, and on the morning when her aunt spoke to her and tried with her feeble hands to tear some stones out of the wall that was being built between them, Clara hurried along the street under the trees, feeling as though she would like also to weep. She saw no possibility of explaining to her aunt the new thoughts she was beginning to have about life and did not want to hurt her by trying. "How can I explain my thoughts when they're not clear in my own mind, when I am myself just groping blindly about?" she asked herself. "She wants me to be good," she thought. "What would she think if I told her that I had come to the conclusion that, judging by her standards, I have been altogether too good? What's the use trying to talk to her when I would only hurt her and make things harder than ever?" She got to a street crossing and looked back. Her aunt was still standing at the door of her house and looking at her. There was something soft, small, round, insistent, both terribly weak and terribly strong about the completely feminine thing she had made of herself or that life had made of her. Clara shuddered. She did not make a symbol of the figure of her aunt and her mind did not form a connection between her aunt's life and what she had become, as Kate Chanceller's mind would have done. She saw the little, round, weeping woman as a boy, walking in the tree-lined streets of a town, sees suddenly the pale face and staring eyes of a prisoner that looks out at him through the iron bars of a town jail. Clara was startled as the boy would be startled and, like the boy, she wanted to run quickly away. "I must think of something else and of other kinds of women or I'll get things terribly distorted," she told herself. "If I think of her and women like her I'll grow afraid of marriage, and I want to be married as soon as I can find the right man. It's the only thing I can do. What else is there a woman can do?"
As Clara and Kate walked about in the evening, they talked continually of the new position Kate believed women were on the point of achieving in the world. The woman who was so essentially a man wanted to talk of marriage and to condemn it, but continually fought the impulse in herself. She knew that were she to let herself go she would say many things that, while they might be true enough as regards herself, would not necessarily be true of Clara. "Because I do not want to live with a man or be his wife is not very good proof that the institution is wrong. It may be that I want to keep Clara for myself. I think more of her than of any one else I've ever met. How can I think straight about her marrying some man and becoming dulled to the things that mean most to me?" she asked herself. One evening, when the women were walking from Kate's apartment to the Woodburn house, they were accosted by two men who wanted to walk with them. There was a small park nearby and Kate led the men to it. "Come," she said, "we won't walk with you, but you may sit with us here on a bench." The men sat down beside them and the older one, a man with a small black mustache, made some remark about the fineness of the night. The younger man who sat beside Clara looked at her and laughed. Kate at once got down to business. "Well, you wanted to walk with us: what for?" she asked sharply. She explained what they had been doing. "We were walking and talking of women and what they were to do with their lives," she explained. "We were expressing opinions, you see. I don't say either of us had said anything that was very wise, but we were having a good time and trying to learn something from each other. Now what have you to say to us? You interrupted our talk and wanted to walk with us: what for? You wanted to be in our company: now tell us what you've got to contribute. You can't just come and walk with us like dumb things. What have you got to offer that you think will make it worth while for us to break up our conversation with each other and spend the time talking with you?"
The older man, he of the mustache, turned to look at Kate, then got up from the bench. He walked a little away and then turned and made a sign with his hand to his companion. "Come on," he said, "let's get out of here. We're wasting our time. It's a cold trail. They're a couple of highbrows. Come on, let's be on our way."
The two women again walked along the street. Kate could not help feeling somewhat proud of the way in which she had disposed of the men. She talked of it until they got to the door of the Woodburn house, and, as she went away along the street Clara thought she swaggered a little. She stood by the door and watched her friend until she had disappeared around a corner. A flash of doubt of the infallibility of Kate's method with men crossed her mind. She remembered suddenly the soft brown eyes of the younger of the two men in the park and wondered what was back of the eyes. Perhaps after all, had she been alone with him, the man might have had something to say quite as much to the point as the things she and Kate had been saying to each other. "Kate made the men look like fools, but after all she wasn't very fair," she thought as she went into the house.
* * * * *
Clara was in Bidwell for a month before she realized what a change had taken place in the life of her home town. On the farm things went on very much as always, except that her father was very seldom there. He had gone deeply into the project of manufacturing and selling corn-cutting machines with Steve Hunter, and attended to much of the selling of the output of the factory. Almost every month he went on trips to cities of the West. Even when he was in Bidwell, he had got into the habit of staying at the town hotel for the night. "It's too much trouble to be always running back and forth," he explained to Jim Priest, whom he had put in charge of the farm work. He swaggered before the old man who for so many years had been almost like a partner in his smaller activities. "Well, I wouldn't like to have anything said, but I think it just as well to have an eye on what's going on," he declared. "Steve's all right, but business is business. We're dealing in big affairs, he and I. I don't say he would try to get the best of me; I'm just telling you that in the future I'll have to be in town most of the time and can't think of things out here. You look out for the farm. Don't bother me with details. You just tell me about it when there is any buying or selling to do."
Clara arrived in Bidwell in the early afternoon of a warm day in June. The hill country through which her train came into town was in the full flush of its summer beauty. In the little patches of level land between the hills grain was ripening in the fields. Along the streets of the tiny towns and on dusty country roads farmers in overalls stood up in their wagons and scolded at the horses, rearing and prancing in half pretended fright of the passing train. In the forests on the hillsides the open places among the trees looked cool and enticing. Clara put her cheek against the car window and imagined herself wandering in cool forests with a lover. She forgot the words of Kate Chanceller in regard to the independent future of women. It was, she thought vaguely, a thing to be thought about only after some more immediate problem was solved. Just what the problem was she didn't definitely know, but she did know that it concerned some close warm contact with life that she had as yet been unable to make. When she closed her eyes, strong warm hands seemed to come out of nothingness and touch her flushed cheeks. The fingers of the hands were strong like the branches of trees. They touched with the firmness and gentleness of the branches of trees nodding in a summer breeze.
Clara sat up stiffly in her seat and when the train stopped at Bidwell got off and went to her waiting father with a firm, business-like air. Coming out of the land of dreams, she took on something of the determined air of Kate Chanceller. She stared at her father and an onlooker might have thought them two strangers, meeting for the purpose of discussing some business arrangement. A flavor of something like suspicion hung over them. They got into Tom's buggy, and as Main Street was torn up for the purpose of laying a brick pavement and digging a new sewer, they drove by a roundabout way through residence streets until they got into Medina Road. Clara looked at her father and felt suddenly very alert and on her guard. It seemed to her that she was far removed from the green, unsophisticated girl who had so often walked in Bidwell's streets; that her mind and spirit had expanded tremendously in the three years she had been away; and she wondered if her father would realize the change in her. Either one of two reactions on his part might, she felt, make her happy. The man might turn suddenly and taking her hand receive her into fellowship, or he might receive her as a woman and his daughter by kissing her.
He did neither. They drove in silence through the town and passed over a small bridge and into the road that led to the farm. Tom was curious about his daughter and a little uncomfortable. Ever since the evening on the porch of the farmhouse, when he had accused her of some unnamed relationship with John May, he had felt guilty in her presence but had succeeded in transferring the notion of guilt to her. While she was away at school he had been comfortable. Sometimes he did not think of her for a month at a time. Now she had written that she did not intend to go back. She had not asked his advice, but had said positively that she was coming home to stay. He wondered what was up. Had she got into another affair with a man? He wanted to ask, had intended to ask, but in her presence found that the words he had intended to say would not come to his lips. After a long silence Clara began to ask questions about the farm, the men who worked there, her aunt's health, the usual home-coming questions. Her father answered with generalities. "They're all right," he said, "every one and everything's all right."
The road began to lift out of the valley in which the town lay, and Tom stopped the horse and pointing with the whip talked of the town. He was relieved to have the silence broken, and decided not to say anything about the letter announcing the end of her school life. "You see there," he said, pointing to where the wall of a new brick factory arose above the trees that grew beside the river. "That's a new factory we're building. We're going to make corn-cutting machines there. The old factory's already too small. We've sold it to a new company that's going to manufacture bicycles. Steve Hunter and I sold it. We got twice what we paid for it. When the bicycle factory's started, he and I'll own the control in that too. I tell you the town's on the boom."
Tom boasted of his new position in the town and Clara turned and looked sharply at him and then looked quickly away. He was annoyed by the action and a flush of anger came to his cheeks. A side of his character his daughter had never seen before came to the surface. When he was a simple farmer he had been too shrewd to attempt to play the aristocrat with his farm hands, but often, as he went about the barns and as he drove along country roads and saw men at work in his fields, he had felt like a prince in the presence of his vassals. Now he talked like a prince. It was that that had startled Clara. There was about him an indefinable air of princely prosperity. When she turned to look at him she noticed for the first time how much his person had also changed. Like Steve Hunter he was beginning to grow fat. The lean hardness of his cheeks had gone, his jaws seemed heavier, even his hands had changed their color. He wore a diamond ring on the left hand and it glistened in the sunlight. "Things have changed," he declared, still pointing at the town. "Do you want to know who changed it? Well, I had more to do with it than any one else. Steve thinks he did it all, but he didn't. I'm the man who has done the most. He put through the plant-setting machine company, but that was a failure. When you come right down to it, things would have gone to pieces again if I hadn't gone to John Clark and talked and bluffed him into giving us money when we wanted it. I had most to do with finding the big market for our corn-cutters, too. Steve lied to me and said he had 'em all sold for a year. He didn't have any sold at all."
Tom struck the horse with the whip and drove rapidly along the road. Even when the climb became difficult he would not let the horse walk, but kept cracking the whip over his back. "I'm a different man than I was when you went away," he declared. "You might as well know it, I'm the big man in this town. It comes pretty near being my town when you come right down to it. I'm going to take care of every one in Bidwell and give every one a chance to make money, but it's my town now pretty near and you might as well know it."
Embarrassed by his own words, Tom talked to cover his embarrassment. Something he wanted very much to say got itself said. "I'm glad you went to school and fitted yourself to be a lady," he began. "I want you should marry pretty soon now. I don't know whether you met any one at school there or not. If you did and he's all right, it's all right with me. I don't want you should marry an ordinary man, but a smart one, an educated man, a gentleman. We Butterworths are going to be bigger and bigger people here. If you get married to a good man, a smart one, I'll build a house for you; not just a little house but a big place, the biggest place Bidwell ever seen." They came to the farm and Tom stopped the buggy in the road. He shouted to a man in the barnyard who came running for her bags. When she had got out of the buggy he immediately turned the horse about and drove rapidly away. Her aunt, a large, moist woman, met her on the steps leading to the front door, and embraced her warmly. The words her father had just spoken ran a riotous course through Clara's brain. She realized that for a year she had been thinking of marriage, had been wanting some man to approach and talk of marriage, but she had not thought of the matter in the way her father had put it. The man had spoken of her as though she were a possession of his that must be disposed of. He had a personal interest in her marriage. It was in someway not a private matter, but a family affair. It was her father's idea, she gathered, that she was to go into marriage to strengthen what he called his position in the community, to help him be some vague thing he called a big man. She wondered if he had some one in mind and could not avoid being a little curious as to who it could be. It had never occurred to her that her marriage could mean anything to her father beyond the natural desire of the parent that his child make a happy marriage. She began to grow angry at the thought of the way in which her father had approached the subject, but was still curious to know whether he had gone so far as to have some one in mind for the role of husband, and thought she would try to find out from her aunt. The strange farm hand came into the house with her bags and she followed him upstairs to what had always been her own room. Her aunt came puffing at her heels. The farm hand went away and she began to unpack, while the older woman, her face very red, sat on the edge of the bed. "You ain't been getting engaged to a man down there where you been to school, have you, Clara?" she asked.
Clara looked at her aunt and blushed; then became suddenly and furiously angry. Dropping the bag she had opened to the floor, she ran out of the room. At the door she stopped and turned on the surprised and startled woman. "No, I haven't," she declared furiously. "It's nobody's business whether I have or not. I went to school for an education. I didn't go to get me a man. If that's what you sent me for, why didn't you say so?"
Clara hurried out of the house and into the barnyard. She went into all of the barns, but there were no men about. Even the strange farm hand who had carried her bags into the house had disappeared, and the stalls in the horse and cattle barns were empty. Then she went into the orchard and climbing a fence went through a meadow and into the wood to which she had always fled, when as a girl on the farm she was troubled or angry. For a long time she sat on a log beneath a tree and tried to think her way through the new idea of marriage she had got from her father's words. She was still angry and told herself that she would leave home, would go to some city and get work. She thought of Kate Chanceller who intended to be a doctor, and tried to picture herself attempting something of the kind. It would take money for study. She tried to imagine herself talking to her father about the matter and the thought made her smile. Again she wondered if he had any definite person in mind as her husband, and who it could be. She tried to check off her father's acquaintances among the young men of Bidwell. "It must be some new man who has come here, some one having something to do with one of the factories," she thought.
After sitting on the log for a long time, Clara got up and walked under the trees. The imaginary man, suggested to her mind by her father's words, became every moment more and more a reality. Before her eyes danced the laughing eyes of the young man who for a moment had lingered beside her while Kate Chanceller talked to his companion that evening when they had been challenged on the streets of Columbus. She remembered the young school teacher, who had held her in his arms through a long Sunday afternoon, and the day when, as an awakening maiden, she had heard Jim Priest talking to the laborers in the barn about the sap that ran up the tree. The afternoon slipped away and the shadows of the trees lengthened. On such a day and alone there in the quiet wood, it was impossible for her to remain in the angry mood in which she had left the house. Over her father's farm brooded the passionate fulfillment of summer. Before her, seen through the trees, lay yellow wheat fields, ripe for the cutting; insects sang and danced in the air about her head; a soft wind blew and made a gentle singing noise in the tops of the trees; at her back among the trees a squirrel chattered; and two calves came along a woodland path and stood for a long time staring at her with their large gentle eyes. She arose and went out of the wood, crossed a falling meadow and came to a rail fence surrounding a corn field. Jim Priest was cultivating corn and when he saw her left his horses and came to her. He took both her hands in his and pumped her arms up and down. "Well, Lord A'mighty, I'm glad to see you," he said heartily. "Lord A'mighty, I'm glad to see you." The old farm hand pulled a long blade of grass out of the ground beneath the fence and leaning against the top rail began to chew it. He asked Clara the same question her aunt had asked, but his asking did not annoy her. She laughed and shook her head. "No, Jim," she said, "I seem to have made a failure of going away to school. I didn't get me a man. No one asked me, you see."
Both the woman and the old man became silent. Over the tops of the young corn they could see down the hillside into the distant town. Clara wondered if the man she was to marry was there. The idea of a marriage with her had perhaps been suggested to his mind also. Her father, she decided, was capable of that. He was evidently ready to go to any length to see her safely married. She wondered why. When Jim Priest began to talk, striving to explain his question, his words fitted oddly into the thoughts she was having in regard to herself. "Now about marriage," he began, "you see now, I never done it. I didn't get married at all. I don't know why. I wanted to and I didn't. I was afraid to ask, maybe. I guess if you do it you're sorry you did and if you don't you're sorry you didn't."
Jim went back to his team, and Clara stood by the fence and watched him go down the long field and turn to come back along another of the paths between the corn rows. When the horses came to where she stood, he stopped again and looked at her. "I guess you'll get married pretty soon now," he said. The horses started on again and he held the cultivating machine with one hand and looked back over his shoulder at her. "You're one of the marrying kind," he called. "You ain't like me. You don't just think about things. You do 'em. You'll be getting yourself married before very long. You are one of the kind that does."