Poor White by Sherwood Anderson
One day in the month of October, four years after the time of his first motor ride with Clara and Tom, Hugh went on a business trip to the city of Pittsburgh. He left Bidwell in the morning and got to the steel city at noon. At three o'clock his business was finished and he was ready to return.
Although he had not yet realized it, Hugh's career as a successful inventor had received a sharp check. The trick of driving directly at the point, of becoming utterly absorbed in the thing before him, had been lost. He went to Pittsburgh to see about the casting of new parts for the hay-loading machine, but what he did in Pittsburgh was of no importance to the men who would manufacture and sell that worthy, labor-saving tool. Although he did not know it, a young man from Cleveland, in the employ of Tom and Steve, had already done what Hugh was striving half-heartedly to do. The machine had been finished and ready to market in October three years before, and after repeated tests a lawyer had made formal application for patent. Then it was discovered that an Iowa man had already made application for and been granted a patent on a similar apparatus.
When Tom came to the shop and told him what had happened Hugh had been ready to drop the whole matter, but that was not Tom's notion. "The devil!" he said. "Do you think we're going to waste all this money and labor?"
Drawings of the Iowa man's machine were secured, and Tom set Hugh at the task of doing what he called "getting round" the other fellow's patents. "Do the best you can and we'll go ahead," he said. "You see we've got the money and that means power. Make what changes you can and then we'll go on with our manufacturing plans. We'll whipsaw this other fellow through the courts. We'll fight him till he's sick of fight and then we'll buy him out cheap. I've had the fellow looked up and he hasn't any money and is a boozer besides. You go ahead. We'll get that fellow all right."
Hugh had tried valiantly to go along the road marked out for him by his father-in-law and had put aside other plans to rebuild the machine he had thought of as completed and out of the way. He made new parts, changed other parts, studied the drawings of the Iowa man's machine, did what he could to accomplish his task.
Nothing happened. A conscientious determination not to infringe on the work of the Iowa man stood in his way.
Then something did happen. At night as he sat alone in his shop after a long study of the drawings of the other man's machine, he put them aside and sat staring into the darkness beyond the circle of light cast by his lamp. He forgot the machine and thought of the unknown inventor, the man far away over forests, lakes and rivers, who for months had worked on the same problem that had occupied his mind. Tom had said the man had no money and was a boozer. He could be defeated, bought cheap. He was himself at work on the instrument of the man's defeat.
Hugh left his shop and went for a walk, and the problem connected with the twisting of the iron and steel parts of the hay-loading apparatus into new forms was again left unsolved. The Iowa man had become a distinct, almost understandable personality to Hugh. Tom had said he drank, got drunk. His own father had been a drunkard. Once a man, the very man who had been the instrument of his own coming to Bidwell, had taken it for granted he was a drunkard. He wondered if some twist of life might not have made him one.
Thinking of the Iowa man, Hugh began to think of other men. He thought of his father and of himself. When he was striving to come out of the filth, the flies, the poverty, the fishy smells, the shadowy dreams of his life by the river, his father had often tried to draw him back into that life. In imagination he saw before him the dissolute man who had bred him. On afternoons of summer days in the river town, when Henry Shepard was not about, his father sometimes came to the station where he was employed. He had begun to earn a little money and his father wanted it to buy drinks. Why?
There was a problem for Hugh's mind, a problem that could not be solved in wood and steel. He walked and thought about it when he should have been making new parts for the hay-loading apparatus. He had lived but little in the life of the imagination, had been afraid to live that life, had been warned and re-warned against living it. The shadowy figure of the unknown inventor in the state of Iowa, who had been brother to himself, who had worked on the same problems and had come to the same conclusions, slipped away, followed by the almost equally shadowy figure of his father. Hugh tried to think of himself and his own life.
For a time that seemed a simple and easy way out of the new and intricate task he had set for his mind. His own life was a matter of history. He knew about himself. Having walked far out of town, he turned and went back toward his shop. His way led through the new city that had grown up since his coming to Bidwell. Turner's Pike that had been a country road along which on summer evenings lovers strolled to the Wheeling station and Pickleville was now a street. All that section of the new city was given over to workers' homes and here and there a store had been built. The Widow McCoy's place was gone and in its place was a warehouse, black and silent under the night sky. How grim the street in the late night! The berry pickers who once went along the road at evening were now gone forever. Like Ezra French's sons they had perhaps become factory hands. Apple and cherry trees once grew along the road. They had dropped their blossoms on the heads of strolling lovers. They also were gone. Hugh had once crept along the road at the heels of Ed Hall, who walked with his arm about a girl's waist. He had heard Ed complaining of his lot in life and crying out for new times. It was Ed Hall who had introduced the piecework plan in the factories of Bidwell and brought about the strike, during which three men had been killed and ill-feeling engendered in hundreds of silent workers. That strike had been won by Tom and Steve and they had since that time been victorious in a larger and more serious strike. Ed Hall was now at the head of a new factory being built along the Wheeling tracks. He was growing fat and was prosperous.
When Hugh got to his shop he lighted his lamp and again got out the drawings he had come from home to study. They lay unnoticed on the desk. He looked at his watch. It was two o'clock. "Clara may be awake. I must go home," he thought vaguely. He now owned his own motor car and it stood in the road before the shop. Getting in he drove away into the darkness over the bridge, out of Turner's Pike and along a street lined with factories and railroad sidings. Some of the factories were working and were ablaze with lights. Through lighted windows he could see men stationed along benches and bending over huge, iron machines. He had come from home that evening to study the work of an unknown man from the far away state of Iowa, to try to circumvent that man. Then he had gone to walk and to think of himself and his own life. "The evening has been wasted. I have done nothing," he thought gloomily as his car climbed up a long street lined with the homes of the wealthier citizens of his town and turned into the short stretch of Medina Road still left between the town and the Butterworth farmhouse.
* * * * *
On the day when he went to Pittsburgh, Hugh got to the station where he was to take the homeward train at three, and the train did not leave until four. He went into a big waiting-room and sat on a bench in a corner. After a time he arose and going to a stand bought a newspaper, but did not read it. It lay unopened on the bench beside him. The station was filled with men, women, and children who moved restlessly about. A train came in and a swarm of people departed, were carried into faraway parts of the country, while new people came into the station from a nearby street. He looked at those who were going out into the train shed. "It may be that some of them are going to that town in Iowa where that fellow lives," he thought. It was odd how thoughts of the unknown Iowa man clung to him.
One day, during the same summer and but a few months earlier, Hugh had gone to the town of Sandusky, Ohio, on the same mission that had brought him to Pittsburgh. How many parts for the hay-loading machine had been cast and later thrown away! They did the work, but he decided each time that he had infringed on the other man's machine. When that happened he did not consult Tom. Something within him warned him against doing that. He destroyed the part. "It wasn't what I wanted," he told Tom who had grown discouraged with his son-in-law but did not openly voice his dissatisfaction. "Oh, well, he's lost his pep, marriage has taken the life out of him. We'll have to get some one else on the job," he said to Steve, who had entirely recovered from the wound received at the hands of Joe Wainsworth.
On that day when he went to Sandusky, Hugh had several hours to wait for his homebound train and went to walk by the shores of a bay. Some brightly colored stones attracted his attention and he picked several of them up and put them in his pockets. In the station at Pittsburgh he took them out and held them in his hand. A light came in at a window, a long, slanting light that played over the stones. His roving, disturbed mind was caught and held. He rolled the stones back and forth. The colors blended and then separated again. When he raised his eyes, a woman and a child on a nearby bench, also attracted by the flashing bit of color held like a flame in his hand, were looking at him intently.
He was confused and walked out of the station into the street. "What a silly fellow I have become, playing with colored stones like a child," he thought, but at the same time put the stones carefully into his pockets.
Ever since that night when he had been attacked in the motor, the sense of some indefinable, inner struggle had been going on in Hugh, as it went on that day in the station at Pittsburgh and on the night in the shop, when he found himself unable to fix his attention on the prints of the Iowa man's machine. Unconsciously and quite without intent he had come into a new level of thought and action. He had been an unconscious worker, a doer and was now becoming something else. The time of the comparatively simple struggle with definite things, with iron and steel, had passed. He fought to accept himself, to understand himself, to relate himself with the life about him. The poor white, son of the defeated dreamer by the river, who had forced himself in advance of his fellows along the road of mechanical development, was still in advance of his fellows of the growing Ohio towns. The struggle he was making was the struggle his fellows of another generation would one and all have to make.
Hugh got into his home-bound train at four o'clock and went into the smoking car. The somewhat distorted and twisted fragment of thoughts that had all day been playing through his mind stayed with him. "What difference does it make if the new parts I have ordered for the machine have to be thrown away?" he thought. "If I never complete the machine, it's all right. The one the Iowa man had made does the work."
For a long time he struggled with that thought. Tom, Steve, all the Bidwell men with whom he had been associated, had a philosophy into which the thought did not fit. "When you put your hand to the plow do not turn back," they said. Their language was full of such sayings. To attempt to do a thing and fail was the great crime, the sin against the Holy Ghost. There was unconscious defiance of a whole civilization in Hugh's attitude toward the completion of the parts that would help Tom and his business associates "get around" the Iowa man's patent.
The train from Pittsburgh went through northern Ohio to a junction where Hugh would get another train for Bidwell. Great booming towns, Youngstown, Akron, Canton, Massillon--manufacturing towns all--lay along the way. In the smoker Hugh sat, again playing with the colored stones held in his hand. There was relief for his mind in the stones. The light continually played about them, and their color shifted and changed. One could look at the stones and get relief from thoughts. Raising his eyes he looked out of the car window. The train was passing through Youngstown. His eyes looked along grimy streets of worker's houses clustered closely about huge mills. The same light that had played over the stones in his hand began to play over his mind, and for a moment he became not an inventor but a poet. The revolution within had really begun. A new declaration of independence wrote itself within him. "The gods have thrown the towns like stones over the flat country, but the stones have no color. They do not burn and change in the light," he thought.
Two men who sat in a seat in the westward bound train began to talk, and Hugh listened. One of them had a son in college. "I want him to be a mechanical engineer," he said. "If he doesn't do that I'll get him started in business. It's a mechanical age and a business age. I want to see him succeed. I want him to keep in the spirit of the times."
Hugh's train was due in Bidwell at ten, but did not arrive until half after eleven. He walked from the station through the town toward the Butterworth farm.
At the end of their first year of marriage a daughter had been born to Clara, and some time before his trip to Pittsburgh she had told him she was again pregnant. "She may be sitting up. I must get home," he thought, but when he got to the bridge near the farmhouse, the bridge on which he had stood beside Clara that first time they were together, he got out of the road and went to sit on a fallen log at the edge of a grove of trees.
"How quiet and peaceful the night!" he thought and leaning forward held his long, troubled face in his hands. He wondered why peace and quiet would not come to him, why life would not let him alone. "After all, I've lived a simple life and have done good work," he thought. "Some of the things they've said about me are true enough. I've invented machines that save useless labor, I've lightened men's labor."
Hugh tried to cling to that thought, but it would not stay in his mind. All the thoughts that gave his mind peace and quiet flew away like birds seen on a distant horizon at evening. It had been so ever since that night when he was suddenly and unexpectedly attacked by the crazed harness maker in the motor. Before that his mind had often been unsettled, but he knew what he wanted. He wanted men and women and close association with men and women. Often his problem was yet more simple. He wanted a woman, one who would love him and lie close to him at night. He wanted the respect of his fellows in the town where he had come to live his life. He wanted to succeed at the particular task to which he had set his hand.
The attack made upon him by the insane harness maker had at first seemed to settle all his problems. At the moment when the frightened and desperate man sank his teeth and fingers into Hugh's neck, something had happened to Clara. It was Clara who, with a strength and quickness quite amazing, had torn the insane man away. All through that evening she had been hating her husband and father, and then suddenly she loved Hugh. The seeds of a child were already alive in her, and when the body of her man was furiously attacked, he became also her child. Swiftly, like the passing of a shadow over the surface of a river on a windy day, the change in her attitude toward her husband took place. All that evening she had been hating the new age she had thought so perfectly personified in the two men, who talked of the making of machines while the beauty of the night was whirled away into the darkness with the cloud of dust thrown into the air by the flying motor. She had been hating Hugh and sympathizing with the dead past he and other men like him were destroying, the past that was represented by the figure of the old harness maker who wanted to do his work by hand in the old way, by the man who had aroused the scorn and derision of her father.
And then the past rose up to strike. It struck with claws and teeth, and the claws and teeth sank into Hugh's flesh, into the flesh of the man whose seed was already alive within her.
At that moment the woman who had been a thinker stopped thinking. Within her arose the mother, fierce, indomitable, strong with the strength of the roots of a tree. To her then and forever after Hugh was no hero, remaking the world, but a perplexed boy hurt by life. He never again escaped out of boyhood in her consciousness of him. With the strength of a tigress she tore the crazed harness maker away from Hugh, and with something of the surface brutality of another Ed Hall, threw him to the floor of the car. When Ed and the policeman, assisted by several bystanders, came running forward, she waited almost indifferently while they forced the screaming and kicking man through the crowd and in at the door of the police station.
For Clara the thing for which she had hungered had, she thought, happened. In quick, sharp tones she ordered her father to drive the car to a doctor's house and later stood by while the torn and lacerated flesh of Hugh's cheek and neck was bandaged. The thing for which Joe Wainsworth stood and that she had thought was so precious to herself no longer existed in her consciousness, and if later she was for some weeks nervous and half ill, it was not because of any thought given to the fate of the old harness maker.
The sudden attack out of the town's past had brought Hugh to Clara, had made him a living if not quite satisfying companion to her, but it had brought something quite different to Hugh. The bite of the man's teeth and the torn places on his cheeks left by the tense fingers had mended, leaving but a slight scar; but a virus had got into his veins. The disease of thinking had upset the harness maker's mind and the germ of that disease had got into Hugh's blood. It had worked up into his eyes and ears. Words men dropped thoughtlessly and that in the past had been blown past his ears, as chaff is blown from wheat in the harvest, now stayed to echo and re-echo in his mind. In the past he had seen towns and factories grow and had accepted without question men's word that growth was invariably good. Now his eyes looked at the towns, at Bidwell, Akron, Youngstown, and all the great, new towns scattered up and down mid-western America as on the train and in the station at Pittsburgh he had looked at the colored stones held in his hand. He looked at the towns and wanted light and color to play over them as they played over the stones, and when that did not happen, his mind, filled with strange new hungers engendered by the disease of thinking, made up words over which lights played. "The gods have scattered towns over the flat lands," his mind had said, as he sat in the smoking car of the train, and the phrase came back to him later, as he sat in the darkness on the log with his head held in his hands. It was a good phrase and lights could play over it as they played over the colored stones, but it would in no way answer the problem of how to "get around" the Iowa's man patent on the hay loading device.
Hugh did not get to the Butterworth farmhouse until two o'clock in the morning, but when he got there his wife was awake and waiting for him. She heard his heavy, dragging footsteps in the road as he turned in at the farm gate, and getting quickly out of bed, threw a cloak over her shoulders and came out to the porch facing the barns. A late moon had come up and the barnyard was washed with moonlight. From the barns came the low, sweet sound of contented animals nibbling at the hay in the mangers before them, from a row of sheds back of one of the barns came the soft bleating of sheep and in a far away field a calf bellowed loudly and was answered by its mother.
When Hugh stepped into the moonlight around the corner of the house, Clara ran down the steps to meet him, and taking his arm, led him past the barns and over the bridge where as a child she had seen the figures of her fancy advancing towards her. Sensing his troubled state her mother spirit was aroused. He was unfilled by the life he led. She understood that. It was so with her. By a lane they went to a fence where nothing but open fields lay between the farm and the town far below. Although she sensed his troubled state, Clara was not thinking of Hugh's trip to Pittsburgh nor of the problems connected with the completion of the hay-loading machine. It may be that like her father she had dismissed from her mind all thoughts of him as one who would continue to help solve the mechanical problems of his age. Thoughts of his continued success had never meant much to her, but during the evening something had happened to Clara and she wanted to tell him about it, to take him into the joy of it. Their first child had been a girl and she was sure the next would be a man child. "I felt him to-night," she said, when they had got to the place by the fence and saw below the lights of the town. "I felt him to-night," she said again, "and oh, he was strong! He kicked like anything. I am sure this time it's a boy."
For perhaps ten minutes Clara and Hugh stood by the fence. The disease of thinking that was making Hugh useless for the work of his age had swept away many old things within him and he was not self-conscious in the presence of his woman. When she told him of the struggle of the man of another generation, striving to be born he put his arm about her and held her close against his long body. For a time they stood in silence, and then started to return to the house and sleep. As they went past the barns and the bunkhouse where several men now slept they heard, as though coming out of the past, the loud snoring of the rapidly ageing farm hand, Jim Priest, and then above that sound and above the sound of the animals stirring in the barns arose another sound, a sound shrill and intense, greetings perhaps to an unborn Hugh McVey. For some reason, perhaps to announce a shift in crews, the factories of Bidwell that were engaged in night work set up a great whistling and screaming. The sound ran up the hillside and rang in the ears of Hugh as, with his arm about Clara's shoulders, he went up the steps and in at the farmhouse door.