Poor White

by Sherwood Anderson

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Book Four: Chapter XIV

Hugh had no suspicion that Clara had him under consideration as a possible husband. He knew nothing about her, but after she went away he began to think. She was a woman and good to look upon and at once took Rose McCoy's place in his mind. All unloved men and many who are loved play in a half subconscious way with the figures of many women as women's minds play with the figures of men, seeing them in many situations, vaguely caressing them, dreaming of closer contacts. With Hugh the impulse toward women had started late, but it was becoming every day more active. When he talked to Clara and while she stayed in his presence, he was more embarrassed than he had ever been before, because he was more conscious of her than he had ever been of any other woman. In secret he was not the modest man he thought himself. The success of his corn-cutting machine and his car-dumping apparatus and the respect, amounting almost to worship, he sometimes saw in the eyes of the people of the Ohio town had fed his vanity. It was a time when all America was obsessed with one idea, and to the people of Bidwell nothing could be more important, necessary and vital to progress than the things Hugh had done. He did not walk and talk like the other people of the town, and his body was over-large and loosely put together, but in secret he did not want to be different even in a physical way. Now and then there came an opportunity for a test of physical strength: an iron bar was to be lifted or a part of some heavy machine swung into place in the shop. In such a test he had found he could lift almost twice the load another could handle. Two men grunted and strained, trying to lift a heavy bar off the floor and put it on a bench. He came along and did the job alone and without apparent effort.

In his room at night or in the late afternoon or evening in the summer when he walked on country roads, he sometimes felt keen hunger for recognition of his merits from his fellows, and having no one to praise him, he praised himself. When the Governor of the State spoke in praise of him before a crowd and when he made Rose McCoy come away because it seemed immodest for him to stay and hear such words, he found himself unable to sleep. After tossing in his bed for two or three hours he got up and crept quietly out of the house. He was like a man who, having an unmusical voice, sings to himself in a bath-room while the water is making a loud, splashing noise. On that night Hugh wanted to be an orator. As he stumbled in the darkness along Turner's Pike he imagined himself Governor of a State addressing a multitude of people. A mile north of Pickleville a dense thicket grew beside the road, and Hugh stopped and addressed the young trees and bushes. In the darkness the mass of bushes looked not unlike a crowd standing at attention, listening. The wind blew and played in the thick, dry growth and there was a sound as of many voices whispering words of encouragement. Hugh said many foolish things. Expressions he had heard from the lips of Steve Hunter and Tom Butterworth came into his mind and were repeated by his lips. He spoke of the swift growth that had come to the town of Bidwell as though it were an unmixed blessing, the factories, the homes of happy, contented people, the coming of industrial development as something akin to a visit of the gods. Rising to the height of egotism he shouted, "I have done it. I have done it."

Hugh heard a buggy coming along the road and fled into the thicket. A farmer, who had gone to town for the evening and who had stayed after the political meeting to talk with other farmers in Ben Head's saloon, went homeward, asleep in his buggy. His head nodded up and down, heavy with the vapors rising from many glasses of beer. Hugh came out of the thicket feeling somewhat ashamed. The next day he wrote a letter to Sarah Shepherd and told her of his progress. "If you or Henry want any money, I can let you have all you want," he wrote, and did not resist the temptation to tell her something of what the Governor had said of his work and his mind. "Anyway they must think I amount to something whether I do or not," he said wistfully.

Having awakened to his own importance in the life about him, Hugh wanted direct, human appreciation. After the failure of the effort both he and Rose had made to break through the wall of embarrassment and reserve that kept them apart, he knew pretty definitely that he wanted a woman, and the idea, once fixed in his mind, grew to gigantic proportions. All women became interesting, and he looked with hungry eyes at the wives of the workmen who sometimes came to the shop door to pass a word with their husbands, at young farm girls who drove along Turner's Pike on summer afternoons, town girls who walked in the Bidwell Main Street in the evening, at fair women and dark women. As he wanted a woman more consciously and determinedly he became more afraid of individual women. His success and his association with the workmen in his shop had made him less self-conscious in the presence of men, but the women were different. In their presence he was ashamed of his secret thoughts of them.

On the day when he was left alone with Clara, Tom Butterworth and Alfred Buckley stayed at the back of the shop for nearly twenty minutes. It was a hot day and beads of sweat stood on Hugh's face. His sleeves were rolled to his elbows and his hands and hairy arms were covered with shop grime. He put up his hand to wipe the sweat from his forehead, leaving a long, black mark. Then he became aware of the fact that as she talked the woman looked at him in an absorbed, almost calculating way. It was as though he were a horse and she were a buyer examining him to be sure he was sound and of a kindly disposition. While she stood beside him her eyes were shining and her cheeks were flushed. The awakening, assertive male thing in him whispered that the flush on her cheeks and the shining eyes were indicative of something. His mind had been taught that lesson by the slight and wholly unsatisfactory experience with the school teacher at his boarding-house.

Clara drove away from the shop with her father and Alfred Buckley. Tom drove and Alfred Buckley leaned forward and talked. "You must find out whether or not Steve has an option on the new tool. It would be foolish to ask outright and give ourselves away. That inventor is stupid and vain. Those fellows always are. They appear to be quiet and shrewd, but they always let the cat out of the bag. The thing to do is to flatter him in some way. A woman could find out all he knows in ten minutes." He turned to Clara and smiled. There was something infinitely impertinent in the fixed, animal-like stare of his eyes. "We do take you into our plans, your father and me, eh?" he said. "You must be careful not to give us away when you talk to that inventor."

From his shop window Hugh stared at the backs of the heads of the three people. The top of Tom Butterworth's buggy had been let down, and when he talked Alfred Buckley leaned forward and his head disappeared. Hugh thought Clara must look like the kind of woman men meant when they spoke of a lady. The farmer's daughter had an instinct for clothes, and Hugh's mind got the idea of gentility by way of the medium of clothes. He thought the dress she had worn the most stylish thing he had ever seen. Clara's friend Kate Chanceller, while mannish in her dress, had an instinct for style and had taught Clara some valuable lessons. "Any woman can dress well if she knows how," Kate had declared. She had taught Clara how to study and emphasize by dress the good points of her body. Beside Clara, Rose McCoy looked dowdy and commonplace.

Hugh went to the rear of his shop to where there was a water-tap and washed his hands. Then he went to a bench and tried to take up the work he had been doing. Within five minutes he went to wash his hands again. He went out of the shop and stood beside the small stream that rippled along beneath willow bushes and disappeared under the bridge beneath Turner's Pike, and then went back for his coat and quit work for the day. An instinct led him to go past the creek again and he knelt on the grass at the edge and again washed his hands.

Hugh's growing vanity was fed by the thought that Clara was interested in him, but it was not yet strong enough to sustain the thought. He took a long walk, going north from the shop along Turner's Pike for two or three miles and then by a cross road between corn and cabbage fields to where he could, by crossing a meadow, get into a wood. For an hour he sat on a log at the wood's edge and looked south. Away in the distance, over the roofs of the houses of the town, he could see a white speck against a background of green--the Butterworth farm house. Almost at once he decided that the thing he had seen in Clara's eyes and that was sister to something he had seen in Rose McCoy's eyes had nothing to do with him. The mantle of vanity he had been wearing dropped off and left him naked and sad. "What would she be wanting of me?" he asked himself, and got up from the log to look with critical eyes at his long, bony body. For the first time in two or three years he thought of the words so often repeated in his presence by Sarah Shepard in the first few months after he left his father's shack by the shore of the Mississippi River and came to work at the railroad station. She had called his people lazy louts and poor white trash and had railed against his inclination to dreams. By struggle and work he had conquered the dreams but could not conquer his ancestry, nor change the fact that he was at bottom poor white trash. With a shudder of disgust he saw himself again a boy in ragged clothes that smelled of fish, lying stupid and half asleep in the grass beside the Mississippi River. He forgot the majesty of the dreams that sometimes came to him, and only remembered the swarms of flies that, attracted by the filth of their clothes, hovered over him and over the drunken father who lay sleeping beside him.

A lump arose in his throat and for a moment he was consumed with self-pity. Then he went out of the wood, crossed the field, and with his peculiar, long, shambling gait that got him over the ground with surprising rapidity, went again along the road. Had there been a stream nearby he would have been tempted to tear off his clothes and plunge in. The notion that he could ever become a man who would in any way be attractive to a woman like Clara Butterworth seemed the greatest folly in the world. "She's a lady. What would she be wanting of me? I ain't fitten for her. I ain't fitten for her," he said aloud, unconsciously falling into the dialect of his father.

Hugh walked the entire afternoon away and in the evening went back to his shop and worked until midnight. So energetically did he work that several knotty problems in the construction of the hay-loading apparatus were cleared away.

On the second evening after the encounter with Clara, Hugh went for a walk in the streets of Bidwell. He thought of the work on which he had been engaged all day and then of the woman he had made up his mind he could under no circumstances win. As darkness came on he went into the country, and at nine returned along the railroad tracks past the corn-cutter factory. The factory was working day and night, and the new plant, also beside the tracks and but a short distance away, was almost completed. Behind the new plant was a field Tom Butterworth and Steve Hunter had bought and laid out in streets of workingmen's houses. The houses were cheaply constructed and ugly, and in all directions there was a vast disorder; but Hugh did not see the disorder or the ugliness of the buildings. The sight that lay before him strengthened his waning vanity. Something of the loose shuffle went out of his stride and he threw back his shoulders. "What I have done here amounts to something. I'm all right," he thought, and had almost reached the old corn-cutter plant when several men came out of a side door and getting upon the tracks, walked before him.

In the corn-cutter plant something had happened that excited the men. Ed Hall the superintendent had played a trick on his fellow townsmen. He had put on overalls and gone to work at a bench in a long room with some fifty other men. "I'm going to show you up," he said, laughing. "You watch me. We're behind on the work and I'm going to show you up."

The pride of the workmen had been touched, and for two weeks they had worked like demons to outdo the boss. At night when the amount of work done was calculated, they laughed at Ed. Then they heard that the piece-work plan was to be installed in the factory, and were afraid they would be paid by a scale calculated on the amount of work done during the two weeks of furious effort.

The workman who stumbled along the tracks cursed Ed Hall and the men for whom he worked. "I lost six hundred dollars in the plant-setting machine failure and this is all I get, to be played a trick on by a young suck like Ed Hall," a voice grumbled. Another voice took up the refrain. In the dim light Hugh could see the speaker, a man with a bent back, a product of the cabbage fields, who had come to town to find employment. Although he did not recognize it, he had heard the voice before. It came from a son of the cabbage farmer, Ezra French and was the same voice he had once heard complaining at night as the French boys crawled across a cabbage field in the moonlight. The man now said something that startled Hugh. "Well," he declared, "it's a joke on me. I quit Dad and made him sore; now he won't take me back again. He says I'm a quitter and no good. I thought I'd come to town to a factory and find it easier here. Now I've got married and have to stick to my job no matter what they do. In the country I worked like a dog a few weeks a year, but here I'll probably have to work like that all the time. It's the way things go. I thought it was mighty funny, all this talk about the factory work being so easy. I wish the old days were back. I don't see how that inventor or his inventions ever helped us workers. Dad was right about him. He said an inventor wouldn't do nothing for workers. He said it would be better to tar and feather that telegraph operator. I guess Dad was right."

The swagger went out of Hugh's walk and he stopped to let the men pass out of sight and hearing along the track. When they had gone a little away a quarrel broke out. Each man felt the others must be in some way responsible for his betrayal in the matter of the contest with Ed Hall and accusations flew back and forth. One of the men threw a heavy stone that ran down along the tracks and jumped into a ditch filled with dry weeds. It made a heavy crashing sound. Hugh heard heavy footsteps running. He was afraid the men were going to attack him, and climbed over a fence, crossed a barnyard, and got into an empty street. As he went along trying to understand what had happened and why the men were angry, he met Clara Butterworth, standing and apparently waiting for him under a street lamp.

       *       *       *       *       *

Hugh walked beside Clara, too perplexed to attempt to understand the new impulses crowding in upon his mind. She explained her presence in the street by saying she had been to town to mail a letter and intended walking home by a side road. "You may come with me if you're just out for a walk," she said. The two walked in silence. Hugh's mind, unaccustomed to traveling in wide circles, centered on his companion. Life seemed suddenly to be crowding him along strange roads. In two days he had felt more new emotions and had felt them more deeply than he would have thought possible to a human being. The hour through which he had just passed had been extraordinary. He had started out from his boarding-house sad and depressed. Then he had come by the factories and pride in what he thought he had accomplished swept in on him. Now it was apparent the workers in the factories were not happy, that there was something the matter. He wondered if Clara would know what was wrong and would tell him if he asked. He wanted to ask many questions. "That's what I want a woman for. I want some one close to me who understands things and will tell me about them," he thought. Clara remained silent and Hugh decided that she, like the complaining workman stumbling along the tracks, did not like him. The man had said he wished Hugh had never come to town. Perhaps every one in Bidwell secretly felt that way.

Hugh was no longer proud of himself and his achievements. Perplexity had captured him. When he and Clara got out of town into a country road, he began thinking of Sarah Shepard, who had been friendly and kind to him when he was a lad, and wished she were with him, or better yet that Clara would take the attitude toward him she had taken. Had Clara taken it into her head to scold as Sarah Shepard had done he would have been relieved.

Instead Clara walked in silence, thinking of her own affairs and planning to use Hugh for her own ends. It had been a perplexing day for her. Late that afternoon there had been a scene between her and her father and she had left home and come to town because she could no longer bear being in his presence. When she had seen Hugh coming toward her she had stopped under a street lamp to wait for him. "I could set everything straight by getting him to ask me to marry him," she thought.

The new difficulty that had arisen between Clara and her father was something with which she had nothing to do. Tom, who thought himself so shrewd and crafty, had been taken in by the city man, Alfred Buckley. A federal officer had come to town during the afternoon to arrest Buckley. The man had turned out to be a notorious swindler wanted in several cities. In New York he had been one of a gang who distributed counterfeit money, and in other states he was wanted for swindling women, two of whom he married unlawfully.

The arrest had been like a shot fired at Tom by a member of his own household. He had almost come to think of Alfred Buckley as one of his family, and as he drove rapidly along the road toward home, he had been profoundly sorry for his daughter and had intended to ask her to forgive him for his part in betraying her into a false position. That he had not openly committed himself to any of Buckley's schemes, had signed no papers and written no letters that would betray the conspiracy he had entered into against Steve, filled him with joy. He had intended to be generous, and even, if necessary, confess to Clara his indiscretion in talking of a possible marriage, but when he got to the farm house and had taken Clara into the parlor and had closed the door, he changed his mind. He told her of Buckley's arrest, and then started tramping excitedly up and down in the room. Her coolness infuriated him. "Don't set there like a clam!" he shouted. "Don't you know what's happened? Don't you know you're disgraced, have brought disgrace on my name?"

The angry father explained that half the town knew of her engagement to marry Alfred Buckley, and when Clara declared they were not engaged and that she had never intended marrying the man, his anger did not abate. He had himself whispered the suggestion about town, had told Steve Hunter, Gordon Hart, and two or three others, that Alfred Buckley and his daughter would no doubt do what he spoke of as "hitting it off," and they had of course told their wives. The fact that he had betrayed his daughter into an ugly position gnawed at his consciousness. "I suppose the rascal told it himself," he said, in reply to her statement, and again gave way to anger. He glared at his daughter and wished she were a son so he could strike with his fists. His voice arose to a shout and could be heard in the barnyard where Jim Priest and a young farm hand were at work. They stopped work and listened. "She's been up to something. Do you suppose some man has got her in trouble?" the young farm hand asked.

In the house Tom expressed his old dissatisfaction with his daughter. "Why haven't you married and settled down like a decent woman?" he shouted. "Tell me that. Why haven't you married and settled down? Why are you always getting in trouble? Why haven't you married and settled down?"

       *       *       *       *       *

Clara walked in the road beside Hugh and thought that all her troubles would come to an end if he would ask her to be his wife. Then she became ashamed of her thoughts. As they passed the last street lamp and prepared to set out by a roundabout way along a dark road, she turned to look at Hugh's long, serious face. The tradition that had made him appear different from other men in the eyes of the people of Bidwell began to affect her. Ever since she had come home she had been hearing people speak of him with something like awe in their voices. For her to marry the town's hero would, she knew, set her on a high place in the eyes of her people. It would be a triumph for her and would re-establish her, not only in her father's eyes but in the eyes of every one. Every one seemed to think she should marry; even Jim Priest had said so. He had said she was the marrying kind. Here was her chance. She wondered why she did not want to take it.

Clara had written her friend Kate Chanceller a letter in which she had declared her intention of leaving home and going to work, and had come to town afoot to mail it. On Main Street as she went through the crowds of men who had come to loaf the evening away before the stores, the force of what her father had said concerning the connection of her name with that of Buckley the swindler had struck her for the first time. The men were gathered together in groups, talking excitedly. No doubt they were discussing Buckley's arrest. Her own name was, no doubt, being bandied about. Her cheeks burned and a keen hatred of mankind had possession of her. Now her hatred of others awoke in her an almost worshipful attitude toward Hugh. By the time they had walked together for five minutes all thought of using him to her own ends had gone. "He's not like Father or Henderson Woodburn or Alfred Buckley," she told herself. "He doesn't scheme and twist things about trying to get the best of some one else. He works, and because of his efforts things are accomplished." The figure of the farm hand Jim Priest working in a field of corn came to her mind. "The farm hand works," she thought, "and the corn grows. This man sticks to his task in his shop and makes a town grow."

In her father's presence during the afternoon Clara had remained calm and apparently indifferent to his tirade. In town in the presence of the men she was sure were attacking her character, she had been angry, ready to fight. Now she wanted to put her head on Hugh's shoulder and cry.

They came to the bridge near where the road turned and led to her father's house. It was the same bridge to which she had come with the school teacher and to which John May had followed, looking for a fight. Clara stopped. She did not want any one at the house to know that Hugh had walked home with her. "Father is so set on my getting married, he would go to see him to-morrow," she thought. She put her arms upon the rail of the bridge and bending over buried her face between them. Hugh stood behind her, turning his head from side to side and rubbing his hands on his trouser legs, beside himself with embarrassment. There was a flat, swampy field beside the road and not far from the bridge, and after a moment of silence the voices of a multitude of frogs broke the stillness. Hugh became overwhelmingly sad. The notion that he was a big man and deserved to have a woman to live with and understand him went entirely away. For the moment he wanted to be a boy and put his head on the shoulder of the woman. He did not look at Clara but at himself. In the dim light his hands, nervously fumbling about, his long, loosely-put-together body, everything connected with his person, seemed ugly and altogether unattractive. He could see the woman's small firm hands that lay on the railing of the bridge. They were, he thought, like everything connected with her person, shapely and beautiful, just as everything connected with his own person was unshapely and ugly.

Clara aroused herself from the meditative mood that had taken possession of her, and after shaking Hugh's hand and explaining that she did not want him to go further went away. When he thought she had quite gone she came back. "You'll hear I was engaged to that Alfred Buckley who has got into trouble and has been arrested," she said. Hugh did not reply and her voice became sharp and a little challenging. "You'll hear we were going to be married. I don't know what you'll hear. It's a lie," she said and turning, hurried away.

Return to the Poor White Summary Return to the Sherwood Anderson Library

Anton Chekhov
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Susan Glaspell
Mark Twain
Edgar Allan Poe
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Herman Melville
Stephen Leacock
Kate Chopin
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson