Poor White by Sherwood Anderson
Hugh first saw Clara Butterworth one day in July when she had been at home for a month. She came to his shop late one afternoon with her father and a man who had been employed to manage the new bicycle factory. The three got out of Tom's buggy and came into the shop to see Hugh's new invention, the hay-loading apparatus. Tom and the man named Alfred Buckley went to the rear of the shop, and Hugh was left alone with the woman. She was dressed in a light summer gown and her cheeks were flushed. Hugh stood by a bench near an open window and listened while she talked of how much the town had changed in the three years she had been away. "It is your doing, every one says that," she declared.
Clara had been waiting for an opportunity to talk to Hugh. She began asking questions regarding his work and what was to come of it. "When everything is done by machines, what are people to do?" she asked. She seemed to take it for granted that the inventor had thought deeply on the subject of industrial development, a subject on which Kate Chanceller had often talked during a whole evening. Having heard Hugh spoken of as one who had a great brain, she wanted to see the brain at work.
Alfred Buckley came often to her father's house and wanted to marry Clara. In the evening the two men sat on the front porch of the farmhouse and talked of the town and the big things that were to be done there. They spoke of Hugh, and Buckley, an energetic, talkative fellow with a long jaw and restless gray eyes who had come from New York City, suggested schemes for using him. Clara gathered that there was a plan on foot to get control of Hugh's future inventions and thereby gain an advantage over Steve Hunter.
The whole matter puzzled Clara. Alfred Buckley had asked her to marry him and she had put the matter off. The proposal had been a formal thing, not at all what she had expected from a man she was to take as a partner for life, but Clara was at the moment very seriously determined upon marriage. The New York man was at her father's house several evenings every week. She had never walked about with him nor had they in any way come close to each other. He seemed too much occupied with work to be personal and had proposed marriage by writing her a letter. Clara got the letter from the post-office and it upset her so that she felt she could not for a time go into the presence of any one she knew. "I am unworthy of you, but I want you to be my wife. I will work for you. I am new here and you do not know me very well. All I ask is the privilege of proving my merit. I want you to be my wife, but before I dare come and ask you to do me so great an honor I feel I must prove myself worthy," the letter said.
Clara had driven into town alone on the day when she received it and later got into her buggy and drove south past the Butterworth farm into the hills. She forgot to go home to lunch or to the evening meal. The horse jogged slowly along, protesting and trying to turn back at every cross road, but she kept on and did not get home until midnight. When she reached the farmhouse her father was waiting. He went with her into the barnyard and helped unhitch the horse. Nothing was said, and after a moment's conversation having nothing to do with the subject that occupied both their minds, she went upstairs and tried to think the matter out. She became convinced that her father had something to do with the proposal of marriage that he knew about it and had waited for her to come home in order to see how it had affected her.
Clara wrote a reply that was as non-committal as the proposal itself. "I do not know whether I want to marry you or not. I will have to become acquainted with you. I however thank you for the offer of marriage and when you feel that the right time has come, we will talk about it," she wrote.
After the exchange of letters, Alfred Buckley came to her father's house more often than before, but he and Clara did not become better acquainted. He did not talk to her, but to her father. Although she did not know it, the rumor that she was to marry the New York man had already run about town. She did not know whether her father or Buckley had told the tale.
On the front porch of the farmhouse through the summer evenings the two men talked of the progress, of the town and the part they were taking and hoped to take in its future growth. The New York man had proposed a scheme to Tom. He was to go to Hugh and propose a contract giving the two men an option on all his future inventions. As the inventions were completed they were to be financed in New York City, and the two men would give up manufacture and make money much more rapidly as promoters. They hesitated because they were afraid of Steve Hunter, and because Tom was afraid Hugh would not fall in with their plan. "It wouldn't surprise me if Steve already had such a contract with him. He's a fool if he hasn't," the older man said.
Evening after evening the two men talked and Clara sat in the deep shadows at the back of the porch and listened. The enmity that had existed between herself and her father seemed to be forgotten. The man who had asked her to marry him did not look at her, but her father did. Buckley did most of the talking and spoke of New York City business men, already famous throughout the Middle West as giants of finance, as though they were his life-long friends. "They'll put over anything I ask them to," he declared.
Clara tried to think of Alfred Buckley as a husband. Like Hugh McVey he was tall and gaunt but unlike the inventor, whom she had seen two or three times on the street, he was not carelessly dressed. There was something sleek about him, something that suggested a well-bred dog, a hound perhaps. As he talked he leaned forward like a greyhound in pursuit of a rabbit. His hair was carefully parted and his clothes fitted him like the skin of an animal. He wore a diamond scarf pin. His long jaw, it seemed to her, was always wagging. Within a few days after the receipt of his letter she had made up her mind that she did not want him as a husband, and she was convinced he did not want her. The whole matter of marriage had, she was sure, been in some way suggested by her father. When she came to that conclusion she was both angry and in an odd way touched. She did not interpret it as fear of some sort of indiscretion on her part, but thought that her father wanted her to marry because he wanted her to be happy. As she sat in the darkness on the front porch of the farmhouse the voices of the two men became indistinct. It was as though her mind went out of her body and like a living thing journeyed over the world. Dozens of men she had seen and had casually addressed, young fellows attending school at Columbus and boys of the town with whom she had gone to parties and dances when she was a young girl, came to stand before her. She saw their figures distinctly, but remembered them at some advantageous moment of her contact with them. At Columbus there was a young man from a town in the southern end of the State, one of the sort that is always in love with a woman. During her first year in school he had noticed Clara, had been undecided as to whether he had better pay attention to her or to a little black-eyed town girl who was in their classes. Several times he walked down the college hill and along the street with Clara. The two stood at a street crossing where she was in the habit of taking a car. Several cars went by as they stood together by a bush that grew by a high stone wall. They talked of trivial matters, a comedy club that had been organized in the school, the chances of victory for the football team. The young man was one of the actors in a play to be given by the comedy club and told Clara of his experiences at rehearsals. As he talked his eyes began to shine and he seemed to be looking, not at her face or body, but at something within her. For a time, perhaps for fifteen minutes, there was a possibility that the two people would love each other. Then the young man went away and later she saw him walking under the trees on the college campus with the little black-eyed town girl.
As she sat on the porch in the darkness in the summer evenings, Clara thought of the incident and of dozens of other swift-passing contacts she had made with men. The voices of the two men talking of money-making went on and on. Whenever she came back out of her introspective world of thought, Alfred Buckley's long jaw was wagging. He was always at work, steadily, persistently urging something on her father. It was difficult for Clara to think of her father as a rabbit, but the notion that Alfred Buckley was like a hound stayed with her. "The wolf and the wolfhound," she thought absent-mindedly.
Clara was twenty-three and seemed to herself mature. She did not intend wasting any more time going to school and did not want to be a professional woman, like Kate Chanceller. There was something she did want and in a way some man, she did not know what man it would be, was concerned in the matter. She was very hungry for love, but might have got that from another woman. Kate Chanceller would have loved her. She was not unconscious of the fact that their friendship had been something more than friendship. Kate loved to hold Clara's hand and wanted to kiss and caress her. The inclination had been put down by Kate herself, a struggle had gone on in her, and Clara had been dimly conscious of it and had respected Kate for making it.
Why? Clara asked herself that question a dozen times during the early weeks of that summer. Kate Chanceller had taught her to think. When they were together Kate did both the thinking and the talking, but now Clara's mind had a chance. There was something back of her desire for a man. She wanted something more than caresses. There was a creative impulse in her that could not function until she had been made love to by a man. The man she wanted was but an instrument she sought in order that she might fulfill herself. Several times during those evenings in the presence of the two men, who talked only of making money out of the products of another man's mind, she almost forced her mind out into a concrete thought concerning women, and then it became again befogged.
Clara grew tired of thinking, and listened to the talk. The name of Hugh McVey played through the persistent conversation like a refrain. It became fixed in her mind. The inventor was not married. By the social system under which she lived that and that only made him a possibility for her purposes. She began to think of the inventor, and her mind, weary of playing about her own figure, played about the figure of the tall, serious-looking man she had seen on Main Street. When Alfred Buckley had driven away to town for the night, she went upstairs to her own room but did not get into bed. Instead, she put out her light and sat by an open window that looked out upon the orchard and from which she could see a little stretch of the road that ran past the farm house toward town. Every evening before Alfred Buckley went away, there was a little scene on the front porch. When the visitor got up to go, her father made some excuse for going indoors or around the corner of the house into the barnyard. "I will have Jim Priest hitch up your horse," he said and hurried away. Clara was left in the company of the man who had pretended he wanted to marry her, and who, she was convinced, wanted nothing of the kind. She was not embarrassed, but could feel his embarrassment and enjoyed it. He made formal speeches.
"Well, the night is fine," he said. Clara hugged the thought that he was uncomfortable. "He has taken me for a green country girl, impressed with him because he is from the city and dressed in fine clothes," she thought. Sometimes her father stayed away five or ten minutes and she did not say a word. When her father returned Alfred Buckley shook hands with him and then turned to Clara, apparently now quite at his ease. "We have bored you, I'm afraid," he said. He took her hand and leaning over, kissed the back of it ceremoniously. Her father looked away. Clara went upstairs and sat by the window. She could hear the two men continuing their talk in the road before the house. After a time the front door banged, her father came into the house and the visitor drove away. Everything became quiet and for a long time she could hear the hoofs of Alfred Buckley's horse beating a rapid tattoo on the road that led down into town.
Clara thought of Hugh McVey. Alfred Buckley had spoken of him as a backwoodsman with a streak of genius. He constantly harped on the notion that he and Tom could use the man for their own ends, and she wondered if both of the men were making as great a mistake about the inventor as they were about her. In the silent summer night, when the sound of the horse's hoofs had died away and when her father had quit stirring about the house, she heard another sound. The corn-cutting machine factory was very busy and had put on a night shift. When the night was still, or when there was a slight breeze blowing up the hill from town, there was a low rumbling sound coming from many machines working in wood and steel, followed at regular intervals by the steady breathing of a steam engine.
The woman at the window, like every one else in her town and in all the towns of the mid-western country, became touched with the idea of the romance of industry. The dreams of the Missouri boy that he had fought, had by the strength of his persistency twisted into new channels so that they had expressed themselves in definite things, in corn-cutting machines and in machines for unloading coal cars and for gathering hay out of a field and loading it on wagons without aid of human hands, were still dreams and capable of arousing dreams in others. They awoke dreams in the mind of the woman. The figures of other men that had been playing through her mind slipped away and but the one figure remained. Her mind made up stories concerning Hugh. She had read the absurd tale that had been printed in the Cleveland paper and her fancy took hold of it. Like every other citizen of America she believed in heroes. In books and magazines she had read of heroic men who had come up out of poverty by some strange alchemy to combine in their stout persons all of the virtues. The broad, rich land demanded gigantic figures, and the minds of men had created the figures. Lincoln, Grant, Garfield, Sherman, and a half dozen other men were something more than human in the minds of the generation that came immediately after the days of their stirring performance. Already industry was creating a new set of semi-mythical figures. The factory at work in the night-time in the town of Bidwell became, to the mind of the woman sitting by the window in the farm house, not a factory but a powerful animal, a powerful beast-like thing that Hugh had tamed and made useful to his fellows. Her mind ran forward and took the taming of the beast for granted. The hunger of her generation found a voice in her. Like every one else she wanted heroes, and Hugh, to whom she had never talked and about whom she knew nothing, became a hero. Her father, Alfred Buckley, Steve Hunter and the rest were after all pigmies. Her father was a schemer; he had even schemed to get her married, perhaps to further his own plans. In reality his schemes were so ineffective that she did not need to be angry with him. There was but one man of them all who was not a schemer. Hugh was what she wanted to be. He was a creative force. In his hands dead inanimate things became creative forces. He was what she wanted not herself but perhaps a son, to be. The thought, at last definitely expressed, startled Clara, and she arose from the chair by the window and prepared to go to bed. Something within her body ached, but she did not allow herself to pursue further the thoughts she had been having.
On the day when she went with her father and Alfred Buckley to visit Hugh's shop, Clara knew that she wanted to marry the man she would see there. The thought was not expressed in her but slept like a seed newly planted in fertile soil. She had herself managed that she be taken to the factory and had also managed that she be left with Hugh while the two men went to look at the half-completed hay-loader at the back of the shop.
She had begun talking to Hugh while the four people stood on the little grass plot before the shop. They went inside and her father and Buckley went through a door toward the rear. She stopped by a bench and as she continued talking Hugh was compelled to stop and stand beside her. She asked questions, paid him vague compliments, and as he struggled, trying to make conversation, she studied him. To cover his confusion he half turned away and looked out through a window into Turner's Pike. His eyes, she decided, were nice. They were somewhat small, but there was something gray and cloudy in them, and the gray cloudiness gave her confidence in the person behind the eyes. She could, she felt, trust him. There was something in his eyes that was like the things most grateful to her own nature, the sky seen across an open stretch of country or over a river that ran straight away into the distance. Hugh's hair was coarse like the mane of a horse, and his nose was like the nose of a horse. He was, she decided, very like a horse; an honest, powerful horse, a horse that was humanized by the mysterious, hungering thing that expressed itself through his eyes. "If I have to live with an animal; if, as Kate Chanceller once said, we women have to decide what other animal we are to live with before we can begin being humans, I would rather live with a strong, kindly horse than a wolf or a wolfhound," she found herself thinking.