Poor White by Sherwood Anderson
After the success of his corn cutting machine and the apparatus for unloading coal cars that brought him a hundred thousand dollars in cash, Hugh could not remain the isolated figure he had been all through the first several years of his life in the Ohio community. From all sides men reached out their hands to him: and more than one woman thought she would like to be his wife. All men lead their lives behind a wall of misunderstanding they themselves have built, and most: men die in silence and unnoticed behind the walls. Now and then a man, cut off from his fellows by the peculiarities of his nature, becomes absorbed in doing something that is impersonal, useful, and beautiful. Word of his activities is carried over the walls. His name is shouted and is carried by the wind into the tiny inclosure in which other men live and in which they are for the most part absorbed in doing some petty task for the furtherance of their own comfort. Men and women stop their complaining about the unfairness and inequality of life and wonder about the man whose name they have heard.
From Bidwell, Ohio, to farms all over the Middle West, Hugh McVey's name had been carried. His machine for cutting corn was called the McVey Corn-Cutter. The name was printed in white letters against a background of red on the side of the machine. Farmer boys in the States of Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, and all the great corn-growing States saw it and in idle moments wondered what kind of man had invented the machine they operated. A Cleveland newspaper man came to Bidwell and went to Pickleville to see Hugh. He wrote a story telling of Hugh's early poverty and his efforts to become an inventor. When the reporter talked to Hugh he found the inventor so embarrassed and uncommunicative that he gave up trying to get a story. Then he went to Steve Hunter who talked to him for an hour. The story made Hugh a strikingly romantic figure. His people, the story said, came out of the mountains of Tennessee, but they were not poor whites. It was suggested that they were of the best English stock. There was a tale of Hugh's having in his boyhood contrived some kind of an engine that carried water from a valley to a mountain community; another of his having seen a clock in a store in a Missouri town and of his having later made a clock of wood for his parents; and a tale of his having gone into the forest with his father's gun, shot a wild hog and carried it down the mountain side on his shoulder in order to get money to buy school books. After the tale was printed the advertising manager of the corn-cutter factory got Hugh to go with him one day to Tom Butterworth's farm. Many bushels of corn were brought out of the corn cribs and a great mountain of corn was built on the ground at the edge of a field. Back of the mountain of corn was a corn field just coming into tassel. Hugh was told to climb up on the mountain and sit there. Then his picture was taken. It was sent to newspapers all over the West with copies of the biography cut from the Cleveland paper. Later both the picture and the biography were used in the catalogue that described the McVey Corn-Cutter.
The cutting of corn and putting it in shocks against the time of the husking is heavy work. In recent times it has come about that much of the corn grown on mid-American prairie lands is not cut. The corn is left standing in the fields, and men go through it in the late fall to pick the yellow ears. The workers throw the corn over their shoulders into a wagon driven by a boy, who follows them in their slow progress, and it is then hauled away to the cribs. When a field has been picked, the cattle are turned in and all winter they nibble at the dry corn blades and tramp the stalks into the ground. All day long on the wide western prairies when the gray fall days have come, you may see the men and the horses working their way slowly through the fields. Like tiny insects they crawl across the immense landscapes. After them in the late fall and in the winter when the prairies are covered with snow, come the cattle. They are brought from the far West in cattle cars and after they have nibbled the corn blades all day, are taken to barns and stuffed to bursting with corn. When they are fat they are sent to the great killing-pens in Chicago, the giant city of the prairies. In the still fall nights, as you stand on prairie roads or in the barnyard back of one of the farm houses, you may hear the rustling of the dry corn blades and then the crash of the heavy bodies of the beasts going forward as they nibble and trample the corn.
In earlier days the method of corn harvesting was different. There was poetry in the operation then as there is now, but it was set to another rhythm. When the corn was ripe men went into the fields with heavy corn knives and cut the stalks of corn close to the ground. The stalks were cut with the right hand swinging the corn knife and carried on the left arm. All day a man carried a heavy load of the stalks from which yellow ears hung down. When the load became unbearably heavy it was carried to the shock, and when all the corn was cut in a certain area, the shock was made secure by binding it with tarred rope or with a tough stalk twisted to take the place of the rope. When the cutting was done the long rows of stalks stood up in the fields like sentinels, and the men crawled off to the farmhouses and to bed, utterly weary.
Hugh's machine took all of the heavier part of the work away. It cut the corn near the ground and bound it into bundles that fell upon a platform. Two men followed the machine, one to drive the horses and the other to place the bundles of stalks against the shocks and to bind the completed shocks. The men went along smoking their pipes and talking. The horses stopped and the driver stared out over the prairies. His arms did not ache with weariness and he had time to think. The wonder and mystery of the wide open places got a little into his blood. At night when the work was done and the cattle fed and made comfortable in the barns, he did not go at once to bed but sometimes went out of his house and stood for a moment under the stars.
This thing the brain of the son of a mountain man, the poor white of the river town, had done for the people of the plains. The dreams he had tried so hard to put away from him and that the New England woman Sarah Shepard had told him would lead to his destruction had come to something. The car-dumping apparatus, that had sold for two hundred thousand dollars, had given Steve Hunter money to buy the plant-setting machine factory, and with Tom Butterworth to start manufacturing the corn-cutters, had affected the lives of fewer people, but it had carried the Missourian's name into other places and had also made a new kind of poetry in railroad yards and along rivers at the back of cities where ships are loaded. On city nights as you lie in your houses you may hear suddenly a long reverberating roar. It is a giant that has cleared his throat of a carload of coal. Hugh McVey helped to free the giant. He is still doing it. In Bidwell, Ohio, he is still at it, making new inventions, cutting the bands that have bound the giant. He is one man who had not been swept aside from his purpose by the complexity of life.
That, however, came near happening. After the coming of his success, a thousand little voices began calling to him. The soft hands of women reached out of the masses of people about him, out of the old dwellers and new dwellers in the city that was growing up about the factories where his machines were being made in ever increasing numbers. New houses were constantly being built along Turner's Pike that led down to his workshop at Pickleville. Beside Allie Mulberry a dozen mechanics were now employed in his experimental shop. They helped Hugh with a new invention, a hay-loading apparatus on which he was at work, and also made special tools for use in the corn-cutter factory and the new bicycle factory. A dozen new houses had been built in Pickleville itself. The wives of the mechanics lived in the houses and occasionally one of them came to see her husband at Hugh's shop. He found it less and less difficult to talk to people. The workmen, themselves not given to the use of many words, did not think his habitual silence peculiar. They were more skilled than Hugh in the use of tools and thought it rather an accident that he had done what they had not done. As he had grown rich by that road they also tried their hand at inventions. One of them made a patent door hinge that Steve sold for ten thousand dollars, keeping half the money for his services, as he had done in the case of Hugh's car-dumping apparatus. At the noon hour the men hurried to their houses to eat and then came back to loaf before the factory and smoke their noonday pipes. They talked of money-making, of the price of food stuffs, of the advisability of a man's buying a house on the partial payment plan. Sometimes they talked of women and of their adventures with women. Hugh sat by himself inside the door of the shop and listened. At night after he had gone to bed he thought of what they had said. He lived in a house belonging to a Mrs. McCoy, the widow of a railroad section hand killed in a railroad accident, who had a daughter. The daughter, Rose McCoy, taught a country school and most of the year was away from home from Monday morning until late on Friday afternoon. Hugh lay in bed thinking of what his workmen had said of women and heard the old housekeeper moving about down stairs. Sometimes he got out of bed to sit by an open window. Because she was the woman whose life touched his most closely, he thought often of the school teacher. The McCoy house, a small frame affair with a picket fence separating it from Turner's Pike, stood with its back door facing the Wheeling Railroad. The section hands on the railroad remembered their former fellow workman, Mike McCoy, and wanted to be good to his widow. They sometimes dumped half decayed railroad ties over the fence into a potato patch back of the house. At night, when heavily loaded coal trains rumbled past, the brakemen heaved large chunks of coal over the fence. The widow awoke whenever a train passed. When one of the brakemen threw a chunk of coal he shouted and his voice could be heard above the rumble of the coal cars. "That's for Mike," he cried. Sometimes one of the chunks knocked a picket out of the fence and the next day Hugh put it back again. When the train had passed the widow got out of bed and brought the coal into the house. "I don't want to give the boys away by leaving it lying around in the daylight," she explained to Hugh. On Sunday mornings Hugh took a crosscut saw and cut the railroad ties into lengths that would go into the kitchen stove. Slowly his place in the McCoy household had become fixed, and when he received the hundred thousand dollars and everybody, even the mother and daughter, expected him to move, he did not do so. He tried unsuccessfully to get the widow to take more money for his board and when that effort failed, life in the McCoy household went as it had when he was a telegraph operator receiving forty dollars a month.
In the spring or fall, as he sat by his window at night, and when the moon came up and the dust in Turner's Pike was silvery white, Hugh thought of Rose McCoy, sleeping in some farmer's house. It did not occur to him that she might also be awake and thinking. He imagined her lying very still in bed. The section hand's daughter was a slender woman of thirty with tired blue eyes and red hair. Her skin had been heavily freckled in her youth and her nose was still freckled. Although Hugh did not know it, she had once been in love with George Pike, the Wheeling station agent, and a day had been set for the marriage. Then a difficulty arose in regard to religious beliefs and George Pike married another woman. It was then she became a school teacher. She was a woman of few words and she and Hugh had never been alone together, but as Hugh sat by the window on fall evenings, she lay awake in a room in the farmer's house, where she was boarding during the school season, and thought of him. She thought that had Hugh remained a telegraph operator at forty dollars a month something might have happened between them. Then she had other thoughts, or rather, sensations that had little to do with thoughts. The room in which she lay was very still and a streak of moonlight came in through the window. In the barn back of the farmhouse she could hear the cattle stirring about. A pig grunted and in the stillness that followed she could hear the farmer, who lay in the next room with his wife, snoring gently. Rose was not very strong and the physical did not rule in her nature, but she was very lonely and thought that, like the farmer's wife, she would like to have a man to lie with her. Warmth crept over her body and her lips became dry so that she moistened them with her tongue. Had you been able to creep unobserved into the room, you might have thought her much like a kitten lying by a stove. She closed her eyes and gave herself over to dreams. In her conscious mind she dreamed of being the wife of the bachelor Hugh McVey, but deep within her there was another dream, a dream having its basis in the memory of her one physical contact with a man. When they were engaged to be married George had often kissed her. On one evening in the spring they had gone to sit together on the grassy bank beside the creek in the shadow of the pickle factory, then deserted and silent, and had come near to going beyond kissing. Why nothing else had happened Rose did not exactly know. She had protested, but her protest had been feeble and had not expressed what she felt. George Pike had desisted in his effort to press love upon her because they were to be married, and he did not think it right to do what he thought of as taking advantage of a girl.
At any rate he did desist and long afterward, as she lay in the farmhouse consciously thinking of her mother's bachelor boarder, her thoughts became less and less distinct and when she had slipped off into sleep, George Pike came back to her. She stirred uneasily in bed and muttered words. Rough but gentle hands touched her cheeks and played in her hair. As the night wore on and the position of the moon shifted, the streak of moonlight lighted her face. One of her hands reached up and seemed to be caressing the moonbeams. The weariness had all gone out of her face. "Yes, George, I love you, I belong to you," she whispered.
Had Hugh been able to creep like the moonbeam into the presence of the sleeping school teacher, he must inevitably have loved her. Also he would perhaps have understood that it is best to approach human beings directly and boldly as he had approached the mechanical problems by which his days were filled. Instead he sat by his window in the presence of the moonlit night and thought of women as beings utterly unlike himself. Words dropped by Sarah Shepard to the awakening boy came creeping back to his mind. He thought women were for other men but not for him, and told himself he did not want a woman.
And then in Turner's Pike something happened. A farmer boy, who had been to town and who had the daughter of a neighbor in his buggy, stopped in front of the house. A long freight train, grinding its way slowly past the station, barred the passage along the road. He held the reins in one hand and put the other about the waist of his companion. The two heads sought each other and lips met. They clung to each other. The same moon that shed its light on Rose McCoy in the distant farmhouse lighted the open place where the lovers sat in the buggy in the road. Hugh had to close his eyes and fight to put down an almost overpowering physical hunger in himself. His mind still protested that women were not for him. When his fancy made for him a picture of the school teacher Rose McCoy sleeping in a bed, he saw her only as a chaste white thing to be worshiped from afar and not to be approached, at least not by himself. Again he opened his eyes and looked at the lovers whose lips still clung together. His long slouching body stiffened and he sat up very straight in his chair. Then he closed his eyes again. A gruff voice broke the silence. "That's for Mike," it shouted and a great chunk of coal thrown from the train bounded across the potato patch and struck against the back of the house. Downstairs he could hear old Mrs. McCoy getting out of bed to secure the prize. The train passed and the lovers in the buggy sank away from each other. In the silent night Hugh could hear the regular beat of the hoofs of the farmer boy's horse as it carried him and his woman away into the darkness.
The two people, living in the house with the old woman who had almost finished her life, and themselves trying feebly to reach out to life, never got to anything very definite in relation to each other. One Saturday evening in the late fall the Governor of the State came to Bidwell. There was a parade to be followed by a political meeting and the Governor, who was a candidate for re-election, was to address the people from the steps of the town hall. Prominent citizens were to stand on the steps beside the Governor. Steve and Tom were to be there, and they had asked Hugh to come, but he had refused. He asked Rose McCoy to go to the meeting with him, and they set out from the house at eight o'clock and walked to town. Then they stood at the edge of the crowd in the shadow of a store building and listened to the speech. To Hugh's amazement his name was mentioned. The Governor spoke of the prosperity of the town, indirectly hinting that it was due to the political sagacity of the party of which he was a representative, and then mentioned several individuals also partly responsible. "The whole country is sweeping forward to new triumphs under our banner," he declared, "but not every community is so fortunate as I find you here. Labor is employed at good wages. Life here is fruitful and happy. You are fortunate here in having among you such business men as Steven Hunter and Thomas Butterworth; and in the inventor Hugh McVey you have one of the greatest intellects and the most useful men that ever lived to help lift the burden off the shoulder of labor. What his brain is doing for labor, our party is doing in another way. The protective tariff is really the father of modern prosperity."
The speaker paused and a cheer arose from the crowd. Hugh took hold of the school teacher's arm and drew her away down a side street. They walked home in silence, but when they got to the house and were about to go in, the school teacher hesitated. She wanted to ask Hugh to walk about in the darkness with her but did not have the courage of her desires. As they stood at the gate and as the tall man with the long serious face looked down at her, she remembered the speaker's words. "How could he care for me? How could a man like him care anything for a homely little school teacher like me?" she asked herself. Aloud she said something quite different. As they had come along Turner's Pike she had made up her mind she would boldly suggest a walk under the trees along Turner's Pike beyond the bridge, and had told herself that she would later lead him to the place beside the stream and in the shadow of the old pickle factory where she and George Pike had come so near being lovers. Instead she hesitated for a moment by the gate and then laughed awkwardly and passed in. "You should be proud. I would be proud if I could be spoken of like that. I don't see why you keep living here in a cheap little house like ours," she said.
On a warm spring Sunday night during the year in which Clara Butterworth came back to Bidwell to live, Hugh made what was for him an almost desperate effort to approach the school teacher. It had been a rainy afternoon and Hugh had spent a part of it in the house. He came over from his shop at noon and went to his room. When she was at home the school teacher occupied a room next his own. The mother who seldom left the house had on that day gone to the country to visit a brother. The daughter got dinner for herself and Hugh and he tried to help her wash the dishes. A plate fell out of his hands and its breaking seemed to break the silent, embarrassed mood that had possession of them. For a few minutes they were children and acted like children. Hugh picked up another plate and the school teacher told him to put it down. He refused. "You're as awkward as a puppy. How you ever manage to do anything over at that shop of yours is more than I know."
Hugh tried to keep hold of the plate which the school teacher tried to snatch away and for a few minutes they struggled laughing. Her cheeks were flushed and Hugh thought she looked bewitching. An impulse he had never had before came to him. He wanted to shout at the top of his lungs, throw the plate at the ceiling, sweep all of the dishes off the table and hear them crash on the floor, play like some huge animal loose in a tiny world. He looked at Rose and his hands trembled from the strength of the strange impulse. As he stood staring she took the plate out of his hand and went into the kitchen. Not knowing what else to do he put on his hat and went for a walk. Later he went to the shop and tried to work, but his hand trembled when he tried to hold a tool and the hay-loading apparatus on which he was at work seemed suddenly a very trivial and unimportant thing.
At four o'clock Hugh got back to the house and found it apparently empty, although the door leading to Turner's Pike was open. The rain had stopped falling and the sun struggled to work its way through the clouds. He went upstairs to his own room and sat on the edge of his bed. The conviction that the daughter of the house was in her room next door came to him, and although the thought violated all the beliefs he had ever held regarding women in relation to himself, he decided that she had gone to her room to be near him when he came in. For some reason he knew that if he went to her door and knocked she would not be surprised and would not refuse him admission. He took off his shoes and set them gently on the floor. Then he went on tiptoes out into the little hallway. The ceiling was so low that he had to stoop to avoid knocking his head against it. He raised his hand intending to knock on the door, and then lost courage. Several times he went into the hallway with the same intent, and each time returned noiselessly to his own room. He sat in the chair by the window and waited. An hour passed. He heard a noise that indicated that the school teacher had been lying on her bed. Then he heard footsteps on the stairs, and presently saw her go out of the house and go along Turner's Pike. She did not go toward town but over the bridge past his shop and into the country. Hugh drew himself back out of sight. He wondered where she could be going. "The roads are muddy. Why does she go out? Is she afraid of me?" he asked himself. When he saw her turn at the bridge and look back toward the house, his hands trembled again. "She wants me to follow. She wants me to go with her," he thought.
Hugh did presently go out of the house and along the road but did not meet the school teacher. She had in fact crossed the bridge and had gone along the bank of the creek on the farther side. Then she crossed over again on a fallen log and went to stand by the wall of the pickle factory. A lilac bush grew beside the wall and she stood out of sight behind it. When she saw Hugh in the road her heart beat so heavily that she had difficulty in breathing. He went along the road and presently passed out of sight, and a great weakness took possession of her. Although the grass was wet she sat on the ground against the wall of the building and closed her eyes. Later she put her face in her hands and wept.
The perplexed inventor did not get back to his boarding house until late that night, and when he did he was unspeakably glad that he had not knocked on the door of Rose McCoy's room. He had decided during the walk that the whole notion that she had wanted him had been born in his own brain. "She's a nice woman," he had said to himself over and over during the walk, and thought that in coming to that conclusion he had swept away all possibilities of anything else in her. He was tired when he got home and went at once to bed. The old woman came home from the country and her brother sat in his buggy and shouted to the school teacher, who came out of her room and ran down the stairs. He heard the two women carry something heavy into the house and drop it on the floor. The farmer brother had given Mrs. McCoy a bag of potatoes. Hugh thought of the mother and daughter standing together downstairs and was unspeakably glad he had not given way to his impulse toward boldness. "She would be telling her now. She is a good woman and would be telling her now," he thought.
At two o'clock that night Hugh got out of bed. In spite of the conviction that women were not for him, he had found himself unable to sleep. Something that shone in the eyes of the school teacher, when she struggled with him for the possession of the plate, kept calling to him and he got up and went to the window. The clouds had all gone out of the sky and the night was clear. At the window next his own sat Rose McCoy. She was dressed in a night gown and was looking away along Turner's Pike to the place where George Pike the station master lived with his wife. Without giving himself time to think, Hugh knelt on the floor and with his long arm reached across the space between the two windows. His fingers had almost touched the back of the woman's head and ached to play in the mass of red hair that fell down over her shoulders, when again self-consciousness overcame him. He drew his arm quickly back and stood upright in the room. His head banged against the ceiling and he heard the window of the room next door go softly down. With a conscious effort he took himself in hand. "She's a good woman. Remember, she's a good woman," he whispered to himself, and when he got again into his bed he refused to let his mind linger on the thoughts of the school teacher, but compelled them to turn to the unsolved problems he still had to face before he could complete his hay-loading apparatus. "You tend to your business and don't be going off on that road any more," he said, as though speaking to another person. "Remember she's a good woman and you haven't the right. That's all you have to do. Remember you haven't the right," he added with a ring of command in his voice.