Poor White by Sherwood Anderson
Steve Hunter decided that it was time something was done to wake up his native town. The call of the spring wind awoke something in him as in Hugh. It came up from the south bringing rain followed by warm fair days. Robins hopped about on the lawns before the houses on the residence streets of Bidwell, and the air was again sweet with the pregnant sweetness of new-plowed ground. Like Hugh, Steve walked about alone through the dark, dimly lighted residence streets during the spring evenings, but he did not try awkwardly to leap over creeks in the darkness or pull bushes out of the ground, nor did he waste his time dreaming of being physically young, clean-limbed and beautiful.
Before the coming of his great achievements in the industrial field, Steve had not been highly regarded in his home town. He had been a noisy boastful youth and had been spoiled by his father. When he was twelve years old what were called safety bicycles first came into use and for a long time he owned the only one in town. In the evening he rode it up and down Main Street, frightening the horses and arousing the envy of the town boys. He learned to ride without putting his hands on the handle-bars and the other boys began to call him Smarty Hunter and later, because he wore a stiff, white collar that folded down over his shoulders, they gave him a girl's name. "Hello, Susan," they shouted, "don't fall and muss your clothes."
In the spring that marked the beginning of his great industrial adventure, Steve was stirred by the soft spring winds into dreaming his own kind of dreams. As he walked about through the streets, avoiding the other young men and women, he remembered Ernestine, the daughter of the Buffalo soap maker, and thought a great deal about the magnificence of the big stone house in which she lived with her father. His body ached for her, but that was a matter he felt could be managed. How he could achieve a financial position that would make it possible for him to ask for her hand was a more difficult problem. Since he had come back from the business college to live in his home town, he had secretly, and at the cost of two new five dollar dresses, arranged a physical alliance with a girl named Louise Trucker whose father was a farm laborer, and that left his mind free for other things. He intended to become a manufacturer, the first one in Bidwell, to make himself a leader in the new movement that was sweeping over the country. He had thought out what he wanted to do and it only remained to find something for him to manufacture to put his plans through. First of all he had selected with great care certain men he intended to ask to go in with him. There was John Clark the banker, his own father, E. H. Hunter the town jeweler, Thomas Butterworth the rich farmer, and young Gordon Hart, who had a job as assistant cashier in the bank. For a month he had been dropping hints to these men of something mysterious and important about to happen. With the exception of his father who had infinite faith in the shrewdness and ability of his son, the men he wanted to impress were only amused. One day Thomas Butterworth went into the bank and stood talking the matter over with John Clark. "The young squirt was always a Smart-Aleck and a blow-hard," he said. "What's he up to now? What's he nudging and whispering about?"
As he walked in the main street of Bidwell, Steve began to acquire that air of superiority that later made him so respected and feared. He hurried along with a peculiarly intense absorbed look in his eyes. He saw his fellow townsmen as through a haze, and sometimes did not see them at all. As he went along he took papers from his pocket, read them hurriedly, and then quickly put them away again. When he did speak--perhaps to a man who had known him from boyhood--there was in his manner something gracious to the edge of condescension. One morning in March he met Zebe Wilson the town shoemaker on the sidewalk before the post-office. Steve stopped and smiled. "Well, good morning, Mr. Wilson," he said, "and how is the quality of leather you are getting from the tanneries now?"
Word regarding this strange salutation ran about among the merchants and artisans. "What's he up to now?" they asked each other. "Mr. Wilson, indeed! Now what's wrong between that young squirt and Zebe Wilson?"
In the afternoon, four clerks from the Main Street stores and Ed Hall the carpenter's apprentice, who had a half day off because of rain, decided to investigate. One by one they went along Hamilton Street to Zebe Wilson's shop and stepped inside to repeat Steve Hunter's salutation. "Well, good afternoon, Mr. Wilson," they said, "and how is the quality of leather you are getting from the tanneries now?" Ed Hall, the last of the five who went into the shop to repeat the formal and polite inquiry, barely escaped with his life. Zebe Wilson threw a shoemaker's hammer at him and it went through the glass in the upper part of the shop door.
Once when Tom Butterworth and John Clark the banker were talking of the new air of importance he was assuming, and half indignantly speculated on what he meant by his whispered suggestion of something significant about to happen, Steve came along Main Street past the front door of the bank. John Clark called him in. The three men confronted each other and the jeweler's son sensed the fact that the banker and the rich farmer were amused by his pretensions. At once he proved himself to be what all Bidwell later acknowledged him to be, a man who could handle men and affairs. Having at that time nothing to support his pretensions he decided to put up a bluff. With a wave of his hand and an air of knowing just what he was about, he led the two men into the back room of the bank and shut the door leading into the large room to which the general public was admitted. "You would have thought he owned the place," John Clark afterward said with a note of admiration in his voice to young Gordon Hart when he described what took place in the back room.
Steve plunged at once into what he had to say to the two solid moneyed citizens of his town. "Well, now, look here, you two," he began earnestly. "I'm going to tell you something, but you got to keep still." He went to the window that looked out upon an alleyway and glanced about as though fearful of being overheard, then sat down in the chair usually occupied by John Clark on the rare occasions when the directors of the Bidwell bank held a meeting. Steve looked over the heads of the two men who in spite of themselves were beginning to be impressed. "Well," he began, "there is a fellow out at Pickleville. You have maybe heard things said about him. He's telegraph operator out there. Perhaps you have heard how he is always making drawings of parts of machines. I guess everybody in town has been wondering what he's up to."
Steve looked at the two men and then got nervously out of the chair and walked about the room. "That fellow is my man. I put him there," he declared. "I didn't want to tell any one yet."
The two men nodded and Steve became lost in the notion created in his fancy. It did not occur to him that what he had just said was untrue. He began to scold the two men. "Well, I suppose I'm on the wrong track there," he said. "My man has made an invention that will bring millions in profits to those who get into it. In Cleveland and Buffalo I'm already in touch with big bankers. There's to be a big factory built, but you see yourself how it is, here I'm at home. I was raised as a boy here."
The excited young man plunged into an exposition of the spirit of the new times. He grew bold and scolded the older men. "You know yourself that factories are springing up everywhere, in towns all over the State," he said. "Will Bidwell wake up? Will we have factories here? You know well enough we won't, and I know why. It's because a man like me who was raised here has to go to a city to get money to back his plans. If I talked to you fellows you would laugh at me. In a few years I might make you more money than you have made in your whole lives, but what's the use talking? I'm Steve Hunter; you knew me when I was a kid. You'd laugh. What's the use my trying to tell you fellows my plans?"
Steve turned as though to go out of the room, but Tom Butterworth took hold of his arm and led him back to a chair. "Now, you tell us what you're up to," he demanded. In turn he grew indignant. "If you've got something to manufacture you can get backing here as well as any place," he said. He became convinced that the jeweler's son was telling the truth. It did not occur to him that a Bidwell young man would dare lie to such solid men as John Clark and himself. "You let them city bankers alone," he said emphatically. "You tell us your story. What you got to tell?"
In the silent little room the three men stared at each other. Tom Butterworth and John Clark in their turn began to have dreams. They remembered the tales they had heard of vast fortunes made quickly by men who owned new and valuable inventions. The land was at that time full of such tales. They were blown about on every wind. Quickly they realized that they had made a mistake in their attitude toward Steve, and were anxious to win his regard. They had called him into the bank to bully him and to laugh at him. Now they were sorry. As for Steve, he only wanted to get away--to get by himself and think. An injured look crept over his face. "Well," he said, "I thought I'd give Bidwell a chance. There are three or four men here. I have spoken to all of you and dropped a hint of something in the wind, but I'm not ready to be very definite yet."
Seeing the new look of respect in the eyes of the two men Steve became bold. "I was going to call a meeting when I was ready," he said pompously. "You two do what I've been doing. You keep your mouths shut. Don't go near that telegraph operator and don't talk to a soul. If you mean business I'll give you a chance to make barrels of money, more'n you ever dreamed of, but don't be in a hurry." He took a bundle of letters out of his inside coat pocket, and beat with them on the edge of the table that occupied the center of the room. Another bold thought came into his mind.
"I've got letters here offering me big money to take my factory either to Cleveland or Buffalo," he declared emphatically. "It isn't money that's hard to get. I can tell you men that. What a man wants in his home town is respect. He don't want to be looked on as a fool because he tries to do something to rise in the world."
* * * * *
Steve walked boldly out of the bank and into Main Street. When he had got out of the presence of the two men he was frightened. "Well, I've done it. I've made a fool of myself," he muttered aloud. In the bank he had said that Hugh McVey the telegraph operator was his man, that he had brought the fellow to Bidwell. What a fool he had been. In his anxiety to impress the two older men he had told a story, the falsehood of which could be discovered in a few minutes. Why had he not kept his dignity and waited? There had been no occasion for being so definite. He had gone too far, had been carried away. To be sure he had told the two men not to go near the telegraph operator, but that would no doubt but serve to arouse their suspicions of the thinness of his story. They would talk the matter over and start an investigation of their own. Then they would find out he had lied. He imagined the two men as already engaged in a whispered conversation regarding the probability of his tale. Like most shrewd men he had an exalted notion regarding the shrewdness of others. He walked a little away from the bank and then turned to look back. A shiver ran over his body. Into his mind came the sickening fear that the telegraph operator at Pickleville was not an inventor at all. The town was full of tales, and in the bank he had taken advantage of that fact to make an impression; but what proof had he? No one had seen one of the inventions supposed to have been worked out by the mysterious stranger from Missouri. There had after all been nothing but whispered suspicions, old wives' tales, fables invented by men who had nothing to do but loaf in the drug-store and make up stories.
The thought that Hugh McVey might not be an inventor overpowered him and he put it quickly aside. He had something more immediate to think about. The story of the bluff he had just made in the bank would be found out and the whole town would rock with laughter at his expense. The young men of the town did not like him. They would roll the story over on their tongues. Ribald old fellows who had nothing else to do would take up the story with joy and would elaborate it. Fellows like the cabbage farmer, Ezra French, who had a talent for saying cutting things would exercise it. They would make up imaginary inventions, grotesque, absurd inventions. Then they would get young fellows to come to him and propose that he take them up, promote them, and make every one rich. Men would shout jokes at him as he went along Main Street. His dignity would be gone forever. He would be made a fool of by the very school boys as he had been in his youth when he bought the bicycle and rode it about before the eyes of other boys in the evenings.
Steve hurried out of Main Street and went over the bridge that crossed the river into Turner's Pike. He did not know what he intended to do, but felt there was much at stake and that he would have to do something at once. It was a warm, cloudy day and the road that led to Pickleville was muddy. During the night before it had rained and more rain was promised. The path beside the road was slippery, and so absorbed was he that as he plunged along, his feet slipped out from under him and he sat down in a small pool of water. A farmer driving past along the road turned to laugh at him. "You go to hell," Steve shouted. "You just mind your own business and go to hell."
The distracted young man tried to walk sedately along the path. The long grass that grew beside the path wet his shoes, and his hands were wet and muddy. Farmers turned on their wagon seats to stare at him. For some obscure reason he could not himself understand, he was terribly afraid to face Hugh McVey. In the bank he had been in the presence of men who were trying to get the best of him, to make a fool of him, to have fun at his expense. He had felt that and had resented it. The knowledge had given him a certain kind of boldness; it had enabled his mind to make up the story of the inventor secretly employed at his own expense and the city bankers anxious to furnish him capital. Although he was terribly afraid of discovery, he felt a little glow of pride at the thought of the boldness with which he had taken the letters out of his pocket and had challenged the two men to call his bluff.
Steve, however, felt there was something different about the man in the telegraph office in Pickleville. He had been in town for nearly two years and no one knew anything about him. His silence might be indicative of anything. He was afraid the tall silent Missourian might decide to have nothing to do with him, and pictured himself as being brushed rudely aside, being told to mind his own business.
Steve knew instinctively how to handle business men. One simply created the notion of money to be made without effort. He had done that to the two men in the bank and it had worked. After all he had succeeded in making them respect him. He had handled the situation. He wasn't such a fool at that kind of a thing. The other thing he had to face might be very different. Perhaps after all Hugh McVey was a big inventor, a man with a powerful creative mind. It was possible he had been sent to Bidwell by a big business man of some city. Big business men did strange, mysterious things; they put wires out in all directions, controlled a thousand little avenues for the creation of wealth.
Just starting out on his own career as a man of affairs, Steve had an overpowering respect for what he thought of as the subtlety of men of affairs. With all the other American youths of his generation he had been swept off his feet by the propaganda that then went on and is still going on, and that is meant to create the illusion of greatness in connection with the ownership of money. He did not then know and, in spite of his own later success and his own later use of the machinery by which illusion is created, he never found out that in an industrial world reputations for greatness of mind are made as a Detroit manufacturer would make automobiles. He did not know that men are employed to bring up the name of a politician so that he may be called a statesman, as a new brand of breakfast food that it may be sold; that most modern great men are mere illusions sprung out of a national hunger for greatness. Some day a wise man, one who has not read too many books but who has gone about among men, will discover and set forth a very interesting thing about America. The land is vast and there is a national hunger for vastness in individuals. One wants an Illinois-sized man for Illinois, an Ohio-sized man for Ohio, and a Texas-sized man for Texas.
To be sure, Steve Hunter had no notion of all this. He never did get a notion of it. The men he had already begun to think of as great and to try to imitate were like the strange and gigantic protuberances that sometimes grow on the side of unhealthy trees, but he did not know it. He did not know that throughout the country, even in that early day, a system was being built up to create the myth of greatness. At the seat of the American Government at Washington, hordes of somewhat clever and altogether unhealthy young men were already being employed for the purpose. In a sweeter age many of these young men might have become artists, but they had not been strong enough to stand against the growing strength of dollars. They had become instead newspaper correspondents and secretaries to politicians. All day and every day they used their minds and their talents as writers in the making of puffs and the creating of myths concerning the men by whom they were employed. They were like the trained sheep that are used at great slaughter-houses to lead other sheep into the killing pens. Having befouled their own minds for hire, they made their living by befouling the minds of others. Already they had found out that no great cleverness was required for the work they had to do. What was required was constant repetition. It was only necessary to say over and over that the man by whom they were employed was a great man. No proof had to be brought forward to substantiate the claims they made; no great deeds had to be done by the men who were thus made great, as brands of crackers or breakfast food are made salable. Stupid and prolonged and insistent repetition was what was necessary.
As the politicians of the industrial age have created a myth about themselves, so also have the owners of dollars, the big bankers, the railroad manipulators, the promoters of industrial enterprise. The impulse to do so is partly sprung from shrewdness but for the most part it is due to a hunger within to be of some real moment in the world. Knowing that the talent that had made them rich is but a secondary talent, and being a little worried about the matter, they employ men to glorify it. Having employed a man for the purpose, they are themselves children enough to believe the myth they have paid money to have created. Every rich man in the country unconsciously hates his press agent.
Although he had never read a book, Steve was a constant reader of the newspapers and had been deeply impressed by the stories he had read regarding the shrewdness and ability of the American captains of industry. To him they were supermen and he would have crawled on his knees before a Gould or a Cal Price--the commanding figures among moneyed men of that day. As he went down along Turner's Pike that day when industry was born in Bidwell, he thought of these men and of lesser rich men of Cleveland and Buffalo, and was afraid that in approaching Hugh he might be coming into competition with one of these men. As he hurried along under the gray sky, he however realized that the time for action had come and that he must at once put the plans that he had formed in his mind to the test of practicability; that he must at once see Hugh McVey, find out if he really did have an invention that could be manufactured, and if he did try to secure some kind of rights of ownership over it. "If I do not act at once, either Tom Butterworth or John Clark will get in ahead of me," he thought. He knew they were both shrewd capable men. Had they not become well-to-do? Even during the talk in the bank, when they had seemed to be impressed by his words, they might well have been making plans to get the better of him. They would act, but he must act first.
Steve hadn't the courage of the lie he had told. He did not have imagination enough to understand how powerful a thing is a lie. He walked quickly along until he came to the Wheeling Station at Pickleville, and then, not having the courage to confront Hugh at once, went past the station and crept in behind the deserted pickle factory that stood across the tracks. Through a broken window at the back he climbed, and crept like a thief across the earth floor until he came to a window that looked out upon the station. A freight train rumbled slowly past and a farmer came to the station to get a load of goods that had arrived by freight. George Pike came running from his house to attend to the wants of the farmer. He went back to his house and Steve was left alone in the presence of the man on whom he felt all of his future depended. He was as excited as a village girl in the presence of a lover. Through the windows of the telegraph office he could see Hugh seated at a desk with a book before him. The presence of the book frightened him. He decided that the mysterious Missourian must be some strange sort of intellectual giant. He was sure that one who could sit quietly reading hour after hour in such a lonely isolated place could be of no ordinary clay. As he stood in the deep shadows inside the old building and stared at the man he was trying to find courage to approach, a citizen of Bidwell named Dick Spearsman came to the station and going inside, talked to the telegraph operator. Steve trembled with anxiety. The man who had come to the station was an insurance agent who also owned a small berry farm at the edge of town. He had a son who had gone west to take up land in the state of Kansas, and the father thought of visiting him. He came to the station to make inquiry regarding the railroad fare, but when Steve saw him talking to Hugh, the thought came into his mind that John Clark or Thomas Butterworth might have sent him to the station to make an investigation of the truth of the statements he had made in the bank. "It would be like them to do it that way," he muttered to himself. "They wouldn't come themselves. They would send some one they thought I wouldn't suspect. They would play safe, damn 'em."
Trembling with fear, Steve walked up and down in the empty factory. Cobwebs hanging down brushed against his face and he jumped aside as though a hand had reached out of the darkness to touch him. In the corners of the old building shadows lurked and distorted thoughts began to come into his head. He rolled and lighted a cigarette and then remembered that the flare of the match could probably be seen from the station. He cursed himself for his carelessness. Throwing the cigarette on the earth floor he ground it under his heel. When at last Dick Spearsman had disappeared up the road that led to Bidwell and he came out of the old factory and got again into Turner's Pike, he felt that he was in no shape to talk of business but nevertheless must act at once. In front of the factory he stopped in the road and tried to wipe the mud off the seat of his trousers with a handkerchief. Then he went to the creek and washed his soiled hands. With wet hands he arranged his tie and straightened the collar of his coat. He had an air of one about to ask a woman to become his wife. Striving to look as important and dignified as possible, he went along the station platform and into the telegraph office to confront Hugh and to find out at once and finally what fate the gods had in store for him.
* * * * *
It no doubt contributed to Steve's happiness in after life, in the days when he was growing rich, and later when he reached out for public honors, contributed to campaign funds, and even in secret dreamed of getting into the United States Senate or being Governor of his state, that he never knew how badly he overreached himself that day in his youth when he made his first business deal with Hugh at the Wheeling Station at Pickleville. Later Hugh's interest in the Steven Hunter industrial enterprises was taken care of by a man who was as shrewd as Steve himself. Tom Butterworth, who had made money and knew how to make and handle money, managed such things for the inventor, and Steve's chance was gone forever.
That is, however, a part of the story of the development of the town of Bidwell and a story that Steve never understood. When he overreached himself that day he did not know what he had done. He made a deal with Hugh and was happy to escape the predicament he thought he had got himself into when he talked too much to the two men in the bank.
Although Steve's father had always a great faith in his son's shrewdness and when he talked to other men represented him as a peculiarly capable and unappreciated man, the two did not in private get on well. In the Hunter household they quarreled and snarled at each other. Steve's mother had died when he was a small boy and his one sister, two years older than himself, kept herself always in the house and seldom appeared on the streets. She was a semi-invalid. Some obscure nervous disease had twisted her body out of shape, and her face twitched incessantly. One morning in the barn back of the Hunter house Steve, then a lad of fourteen, was oiling his bicycle when his sister appeared and stood watching him. A small wrench lay on the ground and she picked it up. Suddenly and without warning she began to beat him on the head. He was compelled to knock her down in order to tear the wrench out of her hand. After the incident she was ill in bed for a month.
Elsie Hunter was always a source of unhappiness to her brother. As he began to get up in life Steve had a growing passion for being respected by his fellows. It got to be something of an obsession with him and among other things he wanted very much to be thought of as one who had good blood in his veins. A man whom he hired searched out his ancestry, and with the exception of his immediate family it seemed very satisfactory. The sister, with her twisted body and her face that twitched so persistently, seemed to be everlastingly sneering at him. He grew half afraid to come into her presence. After he began to grow rich he married Ernestine, the daughter of the soap maker at Buffalo, and when her father died she also had a great deal of money. His own father died and he set up a household of his own. That was in the time when big houses began to appear at the edge of the berry lands and on the hills south of Bidwell. On his father's death Steve became guardian for his sister. The jeweler had left a small estate and it was entirely in the son's hands. Elsie lived with one servant in a small house in town and was put in the position of being entirely dependent on her brother's bounty. In a sense it might be said that she lived by her hatred of him. When on rare occasions he came to her house she would not see him. A servant came to the door and reported her asleep. Almost every month she wrote a letter demanding that her share of her father's money be handed over to her, but it did no good. Steve occasionally spoke to an acquaintance of his difficulty with her. "I am more sorry for the woman than I can say," he declared. "It's the dream of my life to make the poor afflicted soul happy. You see yourself that I provide her with every comfort of life. Ours is an old family. I have it from an expert in such matters that we are descendants of one Hunter, a courtier in the court of Edward the Second of England. Our blood has perhaps become a little thin. All the vitality of the family was centered in me. My sister does not understand me and that has been the cause of much unhappiness and heart burning, but I shall always do my duty by her."
In the late afternoon of the spring day that was also the most eventful day of his life, Steve went quickly along the Wheeling Station platform to the door of the telegraph office. It was a public place, but before going in he stopped, again straightened his tie and brushed his clothes, and then knocked at the door. As there was no response he opened the door softly and looked in. Hugh was at his desk but did not look up. Steve went in and closed the door. By chance the moment of his entrance was also a big moment in the life of the man he had come to see. The mind of the young inventor, that had for so long been dreamy and uncertain, had suddenly become extraordinarily clear and free. One of the inspired moments that come to intense natures, working intensely, had come to him. The mechanical problem he was trying so hard to work out became clear. It was one of the moments that Hugh afterwards thought of as justifying his existence, and in later life he came to live for such moments. With a nod of his head to Steve he arose and hurried out to the building that was used by the Wheeling as a freight warehouse. The jeweler's son ran at his heels. On an elevated platform before the freight warehouse sat an odd looking agricultural implement, a machine for rooting potatoes out of the ground that had been received on the day before and was now awaiting delivery to some farmer. Hugh dropped to his knees beside the machine and examined it closely. Muttered exclamations broke from his lips. For the first time in his life he was not embarrassed in the presence of another person. The two men, the one almost grotesquely tall, the other short of stature and already inclined toward corpulency, stared at each other. "What is it you're inventing? I came to see you about that," Steve said timidly.
Hugh did not answer the question directly. He stepped across the narrow platform to the freight warehouse and began to make a rude drawing on the side of the building. Then he tried to explain his plant-setting machine. He spoke of it as a thing already achieved. At the moment he thought of it in that way. "I had not thought of the use of a large wheel with the arms attached at regular intervals," he said absent-mindedly. "I will have to find money now. That'll be the next step. It will be necessary to make a working model of the machine now. I must find out what changes I'll have to make in my calculations."
The two men returned to the telegraph office and while Hugh listened Steve made his proposal. Even then he did not understand what the machine that was to be made was to do. It was enough for him that a machine was to be made and he wanted to share in its ownership at once. As the two men walked back from the freight warehouse, his mind took hold of Hugh's remark about getting money. Again he was afraid. "There's some one in the background," he thought. "Now I must make a proposal he can't refuse. I mustn't leave until I've made a deal with him."
Fairly carried away by his anxiety, Steve proposed to provide money out of his own pocket to make the model of the machine. "We'll rent the old pickle factory across the track," he said, opening the door and pointing with a trembling finger. "I can get it cheap. I'll have windows and a floor put in. Then I'll get you a man to whittle out a model of the machine. Allie Mulberry can do it. I'll get him for you. He can whittle anything if you only show him what you want. He's half crazy and won't get on to our secret. When the model is made, leave it to me, you just leave it to me."
Rubbing his hands together Steve walked boldly to The telegrapher's desk and picking up a sheet of paper began to write out a contract. It provided that Hugh Was to get a royalty of ten per cent. of the selling price on the machine he had invented and that was to be manufactured by a company to be organized by Steven Hunter. The contract also stated that a promoting company was to be organized at once and money provided for the experimental work Hugh had yet to do. The Missourian was to begin getting a salary at once. He was to risk nothing, as Steve elaborately explained. When he was ready for them mechanics were to be employed and their salaries paid. When the contract had been written and read aloud, a copy was made and Hugh, who was again embarrassed beyond words, signed his name.
With a flourish of his hand Steve laid a little pile of money on the desk. "That's for a starter," he said and turned to frown at George Pike who at that moment came to the door. The freight agent went quickly away and the two men were left alone together. Steve shook hands with his new partner. He went out and then came in again. "You understand," he said mysteriously. "The fifty dollars is your first month's salary. I was ready for you. I brought it along. You just leave everything to me, just you leave it to me." Again he went out and Hugh was left alone. He saw the young man go across the tracks to the old factory and walk up and down before it. When a farmer came along and shouted at him, he did not reply, but stepping back into the road swept the deserted old building with his eyes as a general might have looked over a battlefield. Then he went briskly down the road toward town and the farmer turned on his wagon seat to stare after him.
Hugh McVey also stared. When Steve had gone away, he walked to the end of the station platform and looked along the road toward town. It seemed to him wonderful that he had at last held conversation with a citizen of Bidwell. A little of the import of the contract he had signed came to him, and he went into the station and got his copy of it and put it in his pocket. Then he came out again. When he read it over and realized anew that he was to be paid a living wage and have time and help to work out the problem that had now become vastly important to his happiness, it seemed to him that he had been in the presence of a kind of god. He remembered the words of Sarah Shepard concerning the bright alert citizens of eastern towns and realized that he had been in the presence of such a being, that he had in some way become connected in his new work with such a one. The realization overcame him completely. Forgetting entirely his duties as a telegrapher, he closed the office and went for a walk across the meadows and in the little patches of woodlands that still remained standing in the open plain north of Pickleville. He did not return until late at night, and when he did, had not solved the puzzle as to what had happened. All he got out of it was the fact that the machine he had been trying to make was of great and mysterious importance to the civilization into which he had come to live and of which he wanted so keenly to be a part. There seemed to him something almost sacred in that fact. A new determination to complete and perfect his plant-setting machine had taken possession of him.
* * * * *
The meeting to organize a promotion company that would in turn launch the first industrial enterprise in the town of Bidwell was held in the back room of the Bidwell bank one afternoon in June. The berry season had just come to an end and the streets were full of people. A circus had come to town and at one o'clock there was a parade. Before the stores horses belonging to visiting country people stood hitched in two long rows. The meeting in the bank was not held until four o'clock, when the banking business was at an end for the day. It had been a hot, stuffy afternoon and a storm threatened. For some reason the whole town had an inkling of the fact that a meeting was to be held on that day, and in spite of the excitement caused by the coming of the circus, it was in everybody's mind. From the very beginning of his upward journey in life, Steve Hunter had the faculty of throwing an air of mystery and importance about everything he did. Every one saw the workings of the machinery by which the myth concerning himself was created, but was nevertheless impressed. Even the men of Bidwell who retained the ability to laugh at Steve could not laugh at the things he did.
For two months before the day on which the meeting was held, the town had been on edge. Every one knew that Hugh McVey had suddenly given up his place in the telegraph office and that he was engaged in some enterprise with Steve Hunter. "Well, I see he has thrown off the mask, that fellow," said Alban Foster, superintendent of the Bidwell schools, in speaking of the matter to the Reverend Harvey Oxford, the minister of the Baptist Church.
Steve saw to it that although every one was curious the curiosity was unsatisfied. Even his father was left in the dark. The two men had a sharp quarrel about the matter, but as Steve had three thousand dollars of his own, left him by his mother, and was well past his twenty-first year, there was nothing his father could do.
At Pickleville the windows and doors at the back of the deserted factory were bricked up, and over the windows and the door at the front, where a floor had been laid, iron bars specially made by Lew Twining the Bidwell blacksmith had been put. The bars over the door locked the place at night and gave the factory the air of a prison. Every evening before he went to bed Steve walked to Pickleville. The sinister appearance of the building at night gave him a peculiar satisfaction. "They'll find out what I'm up to when I want 'em to," he said to himself. Allie Mulberry worked at the factory during the day. Under Hugh's direction he whittled pieces of wood into various shapes, but had no idea of what he was doing. No one but the half-wit and Steve Hunter were admitted to the society of the telegraph operator. When Allie Mulberry came into the Main Street at night, every one stopped him and a thousand questions were asked, but he only shook his head and smiled foolishly. On Sunday afternoons crowds of men and women walked down Turner's Pike to Pickleville and stood looking at the deserted building, but no one tried to enter. The bars were in place and window shades were drawn over the windows. Above the door that faced the road there was a large sign. "Keep Out. This Means You," the sign said.
The four men who met Steve in the bank knew vaguely that some sort of invention was being perfected, but did not know what it was. They spoke in an offhand way of the matter to their friends and that increased the general curiosity. Every one tried to guess what was up. When Steve was not about, John Clark and young Gordon Hart pretended to know everything but gave the impression of men sworn to secrecy. The fact that Steve told them nothing seemed to them a kind of insult. "The young upstart, I believe yet he's a bluff," the banker declared to his friend, Tom Butterworth.
On Main Street the old and young men who stood about before the stores in the evening tried also to make light of the jeweler's son and the air of importance he constantly assumed. They also spoke of him as a young upstart and a windbag, but after the beginning of his connection with Hugh McVey, something of conviction went out of their voices. "I read in the paper that a man in Toledo made thirty thousand dollars out of an invention. He got it up in less than a day. He just thought of it. It's a new kind of way for sealing fruit cans," a man in the crowd before Birdie Spink's drug store absent-mindedly observed.
Inside the drug store by the empty stove, Judge Hanby talked persistently of the time when factories would come. He seemed to those who listened a sort of John the Baptist crying out of the coming of the new day. One evening in May of that year, when a goodly crowd was assembled, Steve Hunter came in and bought a cigar. Every one became silent. Birdie Spinks was for some mysterious reason a little upset. In the store something happened that, had there been some one there to record it, might later have been remembered as the moment that marked the coming of the new age to Bidwell. The druggist, after he had handed out the cigar, looked at the young man whose name had so suddenly come upon every one's lips and whom he had known from babyhood, and then addressed him as no young man of his age had ever before been addressed by an older citizen of the town. "Well, good evening, Mr. Hunter," he said respectfully. "And how do you find yourself this evening?"
To the men who met him in the bank, Steve described the plant-setting machine and the work it was intended to do. "It's the most perfect thing of its kind I've ever seen," he said with the air of one who has spent his life as an expert examiner of machinery. Then, to the amazement of every one, he produced sheets covered with figures estimating the cost of manufacturing the machine. To the men present it seemed as though the question as to the practicability of the machine had already been settled. The sheets covered with figures made the actual beginning of manufacturing seem near at hand. Without raising his voice and quite as a matter of course, Steve proposed that the men present subscribe each three thousand dollars to the stock of a promotion company, the money to be used to perfect the machine and put it actually to work in the fields, while a larger company for the building of a factory was being organized. For the three thousand dollars each of the men would receive later six thousand dollars in stock in the larger company. They would make one hundred per cent. on their first investment. As for himself he owned the invention and it was very valuable. He had already received many offers from other men in other places. He wanted to stick to his own town and to the men who had known him since he was a boy. He would retain a controlling interest in the larger company and that would enable him to take care of his friends. John Clark he proposed to make treasurer of the promotion company. Every one could see he would be the right man. Gordon Hart should be manager. Tom Butterworth could, if he could find time to give it, help him in the actual organization of the larger company. He did not propose to do anything in a small way. Much stock would have to be sold to farmers, as well as to townspeople, and he could see no reason why a certain commission for the selling of stock should not be paid.
The four men came out of the back room of the bank just as the storm that had all day been threatening broke on Main Street. They stood together by the front window and watched the people skurry along past the stores homeward-bound from the circus. Farmers jumping into their wagons started their horses away on the trot. The whole street was populous with people shouting and running. To an observing person standing at the bank window, Bidwell, Ohio, might have seemed no longer a quiet town filled with people who lived quiet lives and thought quiet thoughts, but a tiny section of some giant modern city. The sky was extraordinarily black as from the smoke of a mill. The hurrying people might have been workmen escaping from the mill at the end of the day. Clouds of dust swept through the street. Steve Hunter's imagination was aroused. For some reason the black clouds of dust and the running people gave him a tremendous sense of power. It almost seemed to him that he had filled the sky with clouds and that something latent in him had startled the people. He was anxious to get away from the men who had just agreed to join him in his first great industrial adventure. He felt that they were after all mere puppets, creatures he could use, men who were being swept along by him as the people running along the streets were being swept along by the storm. He and the storm were in a way akin to each other. He had an impulse to be alone with the storm, to walk dignified and upright in the face of it as he felt that in the future he would walk dignified and upright in the face of men.
Steve went out of the bank and into the street. The men inside shouted at him, telling him he would get wet, but he paid no attention to their warning. When he had gone and when his father had run quickly across the street to his jewelry store, the three men who were left in the bank looked at each other and laughed. Like the loiterers before Birdie Spinks' drug-store, they wanted to belittle him and had an inclination to begin calling him names; but for some reason they could not do it. Something had happened to them. They looked at each other with a question in their eyes. Each man waited for the others to speak. "Well, whatever happens we can't lose much of anything," John Clark finally observed.
And over the bridge and out into Turner's Pike walked Steve Hunter, the embryo industrial magnate. Across the great stretches of fields that lay beside the road the wind ran furiously, tearing leaves off trees, carrying great volumes of dust before it. The hurrying black clouds in the sky were, he fancied, like clouds of smoke pouring out of the chimneys of factories owned by himself. In fancy also he saw his town become a city, bathed in the smoke of his enterprises. As he looked abroad over the fields swept by the storm of wind, he realized that the road along which he walked would in time become a city street. "Pretty soon I'll get an option on this land," he said meditatively. An exalted mood took possession of him and when he got to Pickleville he did not go into the shop where Hugh and Allie Mulberry were at work, but turning, walked back toward town in the mud and the driving rain.
It was a time when Steve wanted to be by himself, to feel himself the one great man of the community. He had intended to go into the old pickle factory and escape the rain, but when he got to the railroad tracks, had turned back because he realized suddenly that in the presence of the silent, intent inventor he had never been able to feel big. He wanted to feel big on that evening and so, unmindful of the rain and of his hat, that was caught up by the wind and blown away into a field, he went along the deserted road thinking great thoughts. At a place where there were no houses he stopped for a moment and lifted his tiny hands to the skies. "I'm a man. I tell you what, I'm a man. Whatever any one says, I tell you what, I'm a man," he shouted into the void.