Poor White by Sherwood Anderson
The car driven by Tom Butterworth stopped at a town, and Tom got out to fill his pockets with cigars and incidentally to enjoy the wonder and admiration of the citizens. He was in an exalted mood and words flowed from him. As the motor under its hood purred, so the brain under the graying old head purred and threw forth words. He talked to the idlers before the drug stores in the towns and, when the car started again and they were out in the open country, his voice, pitched in a high key to make itself heard above the purring engine, became shrill. Having struck the shrill tone of the new age the voice went on and on.
But the voice and the swift-moving car did not stir Clara. She tried not to hear the voice, and fixing her eyes on the soft landscape flowing past under the moon, tried to think of other times and places. She thought of nights when she had walked with Kate Chanceller through the streets of Columbus, and of the silent ride she had taken with Hugh that night they were married. Her mind went back into her childhood and she remembered the long days she had spent riding with her father in this same valley, going from farm to farm to haggle and dicker for the purchase of calves and pigs. Her father had not talked then but sometimes, when they had driven far and were homeward bound in the failing light of evening, words did come to him. She remembered one evening in the summer after her mother died and when her father often took her with him on his drives. They had stopped for the evening meal at the house of a farmer and when they got on the road again, the moon came out. Something present in the spirit of the night stirred Tom, and he spoke of his life as a boy in the new country and of his fathers and brothers. "We worked hard, Clara," he said. "The whole country was new and every acre we planted had to be cleared." The mind of the prosperous farmer fell into a reminiscent mood and he spoke of little things concerning his life as a boy and young man; the days of cutting wood alone in the silent, white forest when winter came and it was time for getting out firewood and logs for new farm buildings, the log rollings to which neighboring farmers came, when great piles of logs were made and set afire that space might be cleared for planting. In the winter the boy went to school in the village of Bidwell and as he was even then an energetic, pushing youth, already intent on getting on in the world, he set traps in the forest and on the banks of streams and walked the trap line on his way to and from school. In the spring he sent his pelts to the growing town of Cleveland where they were sold. He spoke of the money he got and of how he had finally saved enough to buy a horse of his own.
Tom had talked of many other things on that night, of the spelling-downs at the schoolhouse in town, of huskings and dances held in the barns and of the evening when he went skating on the river and first met his wife. "We took to each other at once," he said softly. "There was a fire built on the bank of the river and after I had skated with her we went and sat down to warm ourselves.
"We wanted to get married to each other right away," he told Clara. "I walked home with her after we got tired of skating, and after that I thought of nothing but how to get my own farm and have a home of my own."
As the daughter sat in the motor listening to the shrill voice of the father, who now talked only of the making of machines and money, that other man talking softly in the moonlight as the horse jogged slowly along the dark road seemed very far away. All such men seemed very far away. "Everything worth while is very far away," she thought bitterly. "The machines men are so intent on making have carried them very far from the old sweet things."
The motor flew along the roads and Tom thought of his old longing to own and drive fast racing horses. "I used to be half crazy to own fast horses," he shouted to his son-in-law. "I didn't do it, because owning fast horses meant a waste of money, but it was in my mind all the time. I wanted to go fast: faster than any one else." In a kind of ecstasy he gave the motor more gas and shot the speed up to fifty miles an hour. The hot, summer air, fanned into a violent wind, whistled past his head. "Where would the damned race horses be now," he called, "where would your Maud S. or your J.I.C. be, trying to catch up with me in this car?"
Yellow wheat fields and fields of young corn, tall now and in the light breeze that was blowing whispering in the moonlight, flashed past, looking like squares on a checker board made for the amusement of the child of some giant. The car ran through miles of the low farming country, through the main streets of towns, where the people ran out of the stores to stand on the sidewalks and look at the new wonder, through sleeping bits of woodlands--remnants of the great forests in which Tom had worked as a boy--and across wooden bridges over small streams, beside which grew tangled masses of elderberries, now yellow and fragrant with blossoms.
At eleven o'clock having already achieved some ninety miles Tom turned the car back. Running more sedately he again talked of the mechanical triumphs of the age in which he had lived. "I've brought you whizzing along, you and Clara," he said proudly. "I tell you what, Hugh, Steve Hunter and I have brought you along fast in more ways that one. You've got to give Steve credit for seeing something in you, and you've got to give me credit for putting my money back of your brains. I don't want to take no credit from Steve. There's credit enough for all. All I got to say for myself is that I saw the hole in the doughnut. Yes, sir, I wasn't so blind. I saw the hole in the doughnut."
Tom stopped to light a cigar and then drove on again. "I'll tell your what, Hugh," he said, "I wouldn't say so to any one not of my family, but the truth is, I'm the man that's been putting over the big things there in Bidwell. The town is going to be a city now and a mighty big city. Towns in this State like Columbus, Toledo and Dayton, had better look out for themselves. I'm the man has always kept Steve Hunter steady and going straight ahead down the track, as this car goes with my hand at the steering wheel.
"You don't know anything about it, and I don't want you should talk, but there are new things coming to Bidwell," he added. "When I was in Chicago last month I met a man who has been making rubber buggy and bicycle tires. I'm going in with him and we're going to start a plant for making automobile-tires right in Bidwell. The tire business is bound to be one of the greatest on earth and they ain't no reason why Bidwell shouldn't be the biggest tire center ever known in the world." Although the car now ran quietly, Tom's voice again became shrill. "There'll be hundreds of thousands of cars like this tearing over every road in America," he declared. "Yes, sir, they will; and if I calculate right Bidwell'll be the great tire town of the world."
For a long time Tom drove in silence, and when he again began to talk it was a new mood. He told a tale of life in Bidwell that stirred both Hugh and Clara deeply. He was angry and had Clara not been in the car would have become violently profane.
"I'd like to hang the men who are making trouble in the shops in town," he broke forth. "You know who I mean, I mean the labor men who are trying to make trouble for Steve Hunter and me. There's a socialist talking every night on the street over there. I'll tell you, Hugh, the laws of this country are wrong." For ten minutes he talked of the labor difficulties in the shops.
"They better look out," he declared, and was so angry that his voice rose to something like a suppressed scream. "We're inventing new machines pretty fast now-days," he cried. "Pretty soon we'll do all the work by machines. Then what'll we do? We'll kick all the workers out and let 'em strike till they're sick, that's what we'll do. They can talk their fool socialism all they want, but we'll show 'em, the fools."
His angry mood passed, and as the car turned into the last fifteen-mile stretch of road that led to Bidwell, he told the tale that so deeply stirred his passengers. Chuckling softly he told of the struggle of the Bidwell harness maker, Joe Wainsworth, to prevent the sale of machine-made harness in the community, and of his experience with his employee, Jim Gibson. Tom had heard the tale in the bar-room of the Bidwell House and it had made a profound impression on his mind. "I'll tell you what," he declared, "I'm going to get in touch with Jim Gibson. That's the kind of man to handle workers. I only heard about him to-night, but I'm going to see him to-morrow."
Leaning back in his seat Tom laughed heartily as he told of the traveling man who had visited Joe Wainsworth's shop and the placing of the order for the factory-made harness. In some intangible way he felt that when Jim Gibson laid the order for the harness on the bench in the shop and by the force of his personality compelled Joe Wainsworth to sign, he justified all such men as himself. In imagination he lived in that moment with Jim, and like Jim the incident aroused his inclination to boast. "Why, a lot of cheap laboring skates can't down such men as myself any more than Joe Wainsworth could down that Jim Gibson," he declared. "They ain't got the character, you see, that's what the matter, they ain't got the character." Tom touched some mechanism connected with the engine of the car and it shot suddenly forward. "Suppose one of them labor leaders were standing in the road there," he cried. Instinctively Hugh leaned forward and peered into the darkness through which the lights of the car cut like a great scythe, and on the back seat Clara half rose to her feet. Tom shouted with delight and as the car plunged along the road his voice rose in triumph. "The damn fools!" he cried. "They think they can stop the machines. Let 'em try. They want to go on in their old hand-made way. Let 'em look out. Let 'em look out for such men as Jim Gibson and me."
Down a slight incline in the road shot the car and swept around a wide curve, and then the jumping, dancing light, running far ahead, revealed a sight that made Tom thrust out his foot and jam on the brakes.
In the road and in the very center of the circle of light, as though performing a scene on the stage, three men were struggling. As the car came to a stop, so sudden that it pitched both Clara and Hugh out of their seats, the struggle came to an end. One of the struggling figures, a small man without coat or hat, had jerked himself away from the others and started to run toward the fence at the side of the road and separating it from a grove of trees. A large, broad-shouldered man sprang forward and catching the tail of the fleeing man's coat pulled him back into the circle of light. His fist shot out and caught the small man directly on the mouth. He fell like a dead thing, face downward in the dust of the road.
Tom ran the car slowly forward and its headlight continued to play over the three figures. From a little pocket at the side of his driver's seat he took a revolver. He ran the car quickly to a position near the group in the road and stopped.
"What's up?" he asked sharply.
Ed Hall the factory superintendent, the man who had struck the blow that had felled the little man, stepped forward and explained the tragic happenings of the evening in town. The factory superintendent had remembered that as a boy he had once worked for a few weeks on the farm of which the wood beside the road was a part, and that on Sunday afternoons the harness maker had come to the farm with his wife and the two people had gone to walk in the very place where he had just been found. "I had a hunch he would be out here," he boasted. "I figured it out. Crowds started out of town in all directions, but I cut out alone. Then I happened to see this fellow and just for company I brought him along." He put up his hand and, looking at Tom, tapped his forehead. "Cracked," he declared, "he always was. A fellow I knew saw him once in that woods," he said pointing. "Somebody had shot a squirrel and he took on about it as though he had lost a child. I said then he was crazy, and he has sure proved I was right."
At a word from her father Clara went to sit on the front seat on Hugh's knees. Her body trembled and she was cold with fear. As her father had told the story of Jim Gibson's triumph over Joe Wainsworth she had wanted passionately to kill that blustering fellow. Now the thing was done. In her mind the harness maker had come to stand for all the men and women in the world who were in secret revolt against the absorption of the age in machines and the products of machines. He had stood as a protesting figure against what her father had become and what she thought her husband had become. She had wanted Jim Gibson killed and it had been done. As a child she had gone often to Wainsworth's shop with her father or some farm hand, and she now remembered sharply the peace and quiet of the place. At the thought of the same place, now become the scene of a desperate killing, her body shook so that she clutched at Hugh's arms, striving to steady herself.
Ed Hall took the senseless figure of the old man in the road into his arms and half threw it into the back seat of the car. To Clara it was as though his rough, misunderstanding hands were on her own body. The car started swiftly along the road and Ed told again the story of the night's happenings. "I tell you, Mr. Hunter is in mighty bad shape, he may die," he said. Clara turned to look at her husband and thought him totally unaffected by what had happened. His face was quiet like her father's face. The factory superintendent's voice went on explaining his part in the adventures of the evening. Ignoring the pale workman who sat lost in the shadows in a corner of the rear seat, he spoke as though he had undertaken and accomplished the capture of the murderer single-handed. As he afterwards explained to his wife, Ed felt he had been a fool not to come alone. "I knew I could handle him all right," he explained. "I wasn't afraid, but I had figured it all out he was crazy. That made me feel shaky. When they were getting up a crowd to go out on the hunt, I says to myself, I'll go alone. I says to myself, I'll bet he's gone out to that woods on the Riggly farm where he and his wife used to go on Sundays. I started and then I saw this other man standing on a corner and I made him come with me. He didn't want to come and I wish I'd gone alone. I could have handled him and I'd got all the credit."
In the car Ed told the story of the night in the streets of Bidwell. Some one had seen Steve Hunter shot down in the street and had declared the harness maker had done it and had then run away. A crowd had gone to the harness shop and had found the body of Jim Gibson. On the floor of the shop were the factory-made harnesses cut into bits. "He must have been in there and at work for an hour or two, stayed right in there with the man he had killed. It's the craziest thing any man ever done."
The harness maker, lying on the floor of the car where Ed had thrown him, stirred and sat up. Clara turned to look at him and shivered. His shirt was torn so that the thin, old neck and shoulders could be plainly seen in the uncertain light, and his face was covered with blood that had dried and was now black with dust. Ed Hall went on with the tale of his triumph. "I found him where I said to myself I would. Yes, sir, I found him where I said to myself I would."
The car came to the first of the houses of the town, long rows of cheaply built frame houses standing in what had once been Ezra French's cabbage patch, where Hugh had crawled on the ground in the moonlight, working out the mechanical problems that confronted him in the building of his plant-setting machine. Suddenly the distraught and frightened man crouched on the floor of the car, raised himself on his hands and lurched forward, trying to spring over the side. Ed Hall caught him by the arm and jerked him back. He drew back his arm to strike again but Clara's voice, cold and intense with passion, stopped him. "If you touch him, I'll kill you," she said. "No matter what he does, don't you dare strike him again."
Tom drove the car slowly through the streets of Bidwell to the door of a police station. Word of the return of the murderer had run ahead, and a crowd had gathered. Although it was past two o'clock the lights still burned in stores and saloons, and crowds stood at every corner. With the aid of a policeman, Ed Hall, with one eye fixed cautiously on the front seat where Clara sat, started to lead Joe Wainsworth away. "Come on now, we won't hurt you," he said reassuringly, and had got his man free of the car when he broke away. Springing back into the rear seat the crazed man turned to look at the crowd. A sob broke from his lips. For a moment he stood trembling with fright, and then turning, he for the first time saw Hugh, the man in whose footsteps he had once crept in the darkness in Turner's Pike, the man who had invented the machine by which the earnings of a lifetime had been swept away. "It wasn't me. You did it. You killed Jim Gibson," he screamed, and springing forward sank his fingers and teeth into Hugh's neck.