Poor White by Sherwood Anderson
Hugh and Clara were married in less than a week after their first walk together. A chain of circumstances touching their two lives hurled them into marriage, and the opportunity for the intimacy with a woman for which Hugh so longed came to him with a swiftness that made him fairly dizzy.
It was a Wednesday evening and cloudy. After dining in silence with his landlady, Hugh started along Turner's Pike toward Bidwell, but when he had got almost into town, turned back. He had left the house intending to go through town to the Medina Road and to the woman who now occupied so large a place in his thoughts, but hadn't the courage. Every evening for almost a week he had taken the walk, and every evening and at almost the same spot he turned back. He was disgusted and angry with himself and went to his shop, walking in the middle of the road and kicking up clouds of dust. People passed along the path under the trees at the side of the road and turned to stare at him. A workingman with a fat wife, who puffed as she walked at his side, turned to look and then began to scold. "I tell you what, old woman, I shouldn't have married and had kids," he grumbled. "Look at me, then look at that fellow. He goes along there thinking big thoughts that will make him richer and richer. I have to work for two dollars a day, and pretty soon I'll be old and thrown on the scrap-heap. I might have been a rich inventor like him had I given myself a chance."
The workman went on his way, grumbling at his wife who paid no attention to his words. Her breath was needed for the labor of walking, and as for the matter of marriage, that had been attended to. She saw no reason for wasting words over the matter. Hugh went to the shop and stood leaning against the door frame. Two or three workmen were busy near the back door and had lighted gas lamps that hung over the work benches. They did not see Hugh, and their voices ran through the empty building. One of them, an old man with a bald head, entertained his fellows by giving an imitation of Steve Hunter. He lighted a cigar and putting on his hat tipped it a little to one side. Puffing out his chest he marched up and down talking of money. "Here's a ten-dollar cigar," he said, handing a long stogie to one of the other workmen. "I buy them by the thousands to give away. I'm interested in uplifting the lives of workmen in my home town. That's what takes all my attention."
The other workmen laughed and the little man continued to prance up and down and talk, but Hugh did not hear him. He stared moodily at the people going along the road toward town. Darkness was coming but he could still see dim figures striding along. Over at the foundry back of the corn-cutting machine plant the night shift was pouring off, and a sudden glare of light played across the heavy smoke cloud that lay over the town. The bells of the churches began to call people to the Wednesday evening prayer-meetings. Some enterprising citizen had begun to build workmen's houses in a field beyond Hugh's shop and these were occupied by Italian laborers. A crowd of them came past. What would some day be a tenement district was growing in a field beside a cabbage patch belonging to Ezra French who had said God would not permit men to change the field of their labors.
An Italian passed under a lamp near the Wheeling station. He wore a bright red handkerchief about his neck and was clad in a brightly colored shirt. Like the other people of Bidwell, Hugh did not like to see foreigners about. He did not understand them and when he saw them going about the streets in groups, was a little afraid. It was a man's duty, he thought, to look as much as possible like all his fellow men, to lose himself in the crowds, and these fellows did not look like other men. They loved color, and as they talked they made rapid gestures with their hands. The Italian in the road was with a woman of his own race, and in the growing darkness put his arm about her shoulder. Hugh's heart began to beat rapidly and he forgot his American prejudices. He wished he were a workman and that Clara were a workman's daughter. Then, he thought, he might find courage to go to her. His imagination, quickened by the flame of desire and running in new channels, made it possible for him, at the moment to see himself in the young Italian's place, walking in the road with Clara. She was clad in a calico dress and her soft brown eyes looked at him full of love and understanding.
The three workingmen had completed the job for which they had come back to work after the evening meal, and now turned out the lights and came toward the front of the shop. Hugh drew back from the door and concealed himself by standing in the heavy shadows by the wall. So realistic were his thoughts of Clara that he did not want them intruded upon.
The workmen went out of the shop door and stood talking. The bald-headed man was telling a tale to which the others listened eagerly. "It's all over town," he said. "From what I hear every one say it isn't the first time she's been in such a mess. Old Tom Butterworth claimed he sent her away to school three years ago, but now they say that isn't the truth. What they say is that she was in the family way to one of her father's farm hands and had to get out of town." The man laughed. "Lord, if Clara Butterworth was my daughter she'd be in a nice fix, wouldn't she, eh?" he said, laughing. "As it is, she's all right. She's gone now and got herself mixed up with this swindler Buckley, but her father's money will make it all right. If she's going to have a kid, no one'll know. Maybe she's already had the kid. They say she's a regular one for the men."
As the man talked Hugh came to the door and stood in the darkness listening. For a time the words would not penetrate his consciousness, and then he remembered what Clara had said. She had said something about Alfred Buckley and that there would be a story connecting her name with his. She had been hot and angry and had declared the story a lie. Hugh did not know what the story was about, but it was evident there was a story abroad, a scandalous story concerning her and Alfred Buckley. A hot, impersonal anger took possession of him. "She's in trouble--here's my chance," he thought. His tall figure straightened and as he stepped through the shop door his head struck sharply against the door frame, but he did not feel the blow that at another time might have knocked him down. During his whole life he had never struck any one with his fists, and had never felt a desire to do so, but now hunger to strike and even to kill took complete possession of him. With a cry of rage his fist shot out and the old man who had done the talking was knocked senseless into a clump of weeds that grew near the door. Hugh whirled and struck a second man who fell through the open doorway into the shop. The third man ran away into the darkness along Turner's Pike.
Hugh walked rapidly to town and through Main Street. He saw Tom Butterworth walking in the street with Steve Hunter, but turned a corner to avoid a meeting. "My chance has come," he kept saying to himself as he hurried along Medina Road. "Clara's in some kind of trouble. My chance has come."
By the time he got to the door of the Butterworth house, Hugh's new-found courage had almost left him, but before it had quite gone he raised his hand and knocked on the door. By good fortune Clara came to open it. Hugh took off his hat and turned it awkwardly in his hands. "I came out here to ask you to marry me," he said. "I want you to be my wife. Will you do it?"
Clara stepped out of the house and closed the door. A whirl of thoughts ran through her brain. For a moment she felt like laughing, and then what there was in her of her father's shrewdness came to her rescue. "Why shouldn't I do it?" she thought. "Here's my chance. This man is excited and upset now, but he is a man I can respect. It's the best marriage I'll ever have a chance to make. I do not love him, but perhaps that will come. This may be the way marriages are made."
Clara put out her hand and laid it on Hugh's arm. "Well," she said, hesitatingly, "you wait here a moment."
She went into the house and left Hugh standing in the darkness. He was terribly afraid. It seemed to him that every secret desire of his life had got itself suddenly and bluntly expressed. He felt naked and ashamed. "If she comes out and says she'll marry me, what will I do? What'll I do then?" he asked himself.
When she did come out Clara wore her hat and a long coat. "Come," she said, and led him around the house and through the barnyard to one of the barns. She went into a dark stall and led forth a horse and with Hugh's help pulled a buggy out of a shed into the barnyard. "If we're going to do it there's no use putting it off," she said with a trembling voice. "We might as well go to the county seat and do it at once."
The horse was hitched and Clara got into the buggy. Hugh climbed in and sat beside her. She had started to drive out of the barnyard when Jim Priest stepped suddenly out of the darkness and took hold of the horse's head. Clara held the buggy whip in her hand and raised it to hit the horse. A desperate determination that nothing should interfere with her marriage with Hugh had taken possession of her. "If necessary I'll ride the man down," she thought. Jim came to stand beside the buggy. He looked past Clara at Hugh. "I thought maybe it was that Buckley," he said. He put a hand on the buggy dash and laid the other on Clara's arm. "You're a woman now, Clara, and I guess you know what you're doing. I guess you know I'm your friend," he said slowly. "You been in trouble, I know. I couldn't help hearing what your father said to you about Buckley, he talked so loud. Clara, I don't want to see you get into trouble."
The farm hand stepped away from the buggy and then came back and again put his hand on Clara's arm. The silence that lay over the barnyard lasted until the woman felt she could speak without a break in her voice.
"I'm not going very far, Jim," she said, laughing nervously. "This is Mr. Hugh McVey and we're going over to the county seat to get married. We'll be back home before midnight. You put a candle in the window for us."
Hitting the horse a sharp blow, Clara drove quickly past the house and into the road. She turned south into the hill country through which lay the road to the county seat. As the horse trotted quickly along, the voice of Jim Priest called to her out of the darkness of the barnyard, but she did not stop. The afternoon and evening had been cloudy and the night was dark. She was glad of that. As the horse went swiftly along she turned to look at Hugh who sat up very stiffly on the buggy seat and stared straight ahead. The long horse-like face of the Missourian with its huge nose and deeply furrowed cheeks was ennobled by the soft darkness, and a tender feeling crept over her. When he had asked her to become his wife, Clara had pounced like a wild animal abroad seeking prey and the thing in her that was like her father, hard, shrewd and quick-witted, had led her to decide to see the thing through at once. Now she became ashamed, and her tender mood took the hardness and shrewdness away. "This man and I have a thousand things we should say to each other before we rush into marriage," she thought, and was half inclined to turn the horse and drive back. She wondered if Hugh had also heard the stories connecting her name with that of Buckley, the stories she was sure were now running from lip to lip through the streets of Bidwell, and what version of the tale had been carried to him. "Perhaps he came to propose marriage in order to protect me," she thought, and decided that if he had come for that reason she was taking an unfair advantage. "It is what Kate Chanceller would call 'doing the man a dirty, low-down trick,'" she told herself; but even as the thought came she leaned forward and touching the horse with the whip urged him even more swiftly along the road.
A mile south of the Butterworth farmhouse the road to the county seat crossed the crest of a hill, the highest point in the county, and from the road there was a magnificent view of the country lying to the south. The sky had begun to clear, and as they reached the point known as Lookout Hill, the moon broke through a tangle of clouds. Clara stopped the horse and turned to look down the hillside. Below lay the lights of her father's farmhouse--where he had come as a young man and to which long ago he had brought his bride. Far below the farmhouse a clustered mass of lights outlined the swiftly growing town. The determination that had carried Clara thus far wavered again and a lump came into her throat.
Hugh also turned to look but did not see the dark beauty of the country wearing its night jewels of lights. The woman he wanted so passionately and of whom he was so afraid had her face turned from him, and he dared to look at her. He saw the sharp curve of her breasts and in the dim light her cheeks seemed to glow with beauty. An odd notion came to him. In the uncertain light her face seemed to move independent of her body. It drew near him and then drew away. Once he thought the dimly seen white cheek would touch his own. He waited breathless. A flame of desire ran through his body.
Hugh's mind flew back through the years to his boyhood and young manhood. In the river town when he was a boy the raftsmen and hangers-on of the town's saloons, who had sometimes come to spend an afternoon on the river banks with his father John McVey, often spoke of women and marriage. As they lay on the burned grass in the warm sunlight they talked and the boy who lay half asleep nearby listened. The voices came to him as though out of the clouds or up out of the lazy waters of the great river and the talk of women awoke his boyhood lusts. One of the men, a tall young fellow with a mustache and with dark rings under his eyes, told in a lazy, drawling voice the tale of an adventure had with a woman one night when a raft on which he was employed had tied up near the city of St. Louis, and Hugh listened enviously. As he told the tale the young man a little awoke from his stupor, and when he laughed the other men lying about laughed with him. "I got the best of her after all," he boasted. "After it was all over we went into a little room at the back of a saloon. I watched my chance and when she went to sleep sitting in a chair I took eight dollars out of her stocking."
That night in the buggy beside Clara, Hugh thought of himself lying by the river bank on the summer days. Dreams had come to him there, sometimes gigantic dreams; but there had also come ugly thoughts and desires. By his father's shack there was always the sharp rancid smell of decaying fish and swarms of flies filled the air. Out in the clean Ohio country, in the hills south of Bidwell, it seemed to him that the smell of decaying fish came back, that it was in his clothes, that it had in some way worked its way into his nature. He put up his hand and swept it across his face, an unconscious return of the perpetual movement of brushing flies away from his face as he lay half asleep by the river.
Little lustful thoughts kept coming to Hugh and made him ashamed. He moved restlessly in the buggy seat and a lump came into his throat. Again he looked at Clara. "I'm a poor white," he thought. "It isn't fitten I should marry this woman."
From the high spot in the road Clara looked down at her father's house and below at the lights of the town, that had already spread so far over the countryside, and up through the hills toward the farm where she had spent her girlhood and where, as Jim Priest had said, "the sap had begun to run up the tree." She began to love the man who was to be her husband, but like the dreamers of the town, saw him as something a little inhuman, as a man almost gigantic in his bigness. Many things Kate Chanceller had said as the two developing women walked and talked in the streets of Columbus came back to her mind. When they had started again along the road she continually worried the horse by tapping him with the whip. Like Kate, Clara wanted to be fair and square. "A woman should be fair and square, even with a man," Kate had said. "The man I'm going to have as a husband is simple and honest," she thought. "If there are things down there in town that are not square and fair, he had nothing to do with them." Realizing a little Hugh's difficulty in expressing what he must feel, she wanted to help him, but when she turned and saw how he did not look at her but continually stared into the darkness, pride kept her silent. "I'll have to wait until he's ready. Already I've taken things too much into my own hands. I'll put through this marriage, but when it comes to anything else he'll have to begin," she told herself, and a lump came into her throat and tears to her eyes.