Poor White

by Sherwood Anderson

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Book Four: Chapter XVI

As he stood alone in the barnyard, excited at the thought of the adventure on which Clara and Hugh had set out, Jim Priest remembered Tom Butterworth. For more than thirty years Jim had worked for Tom and they had one strong impulse that bound them together--their common love of fine horses. More than once the two men had spent an afternoon together in the grand stand at the fall trotting meeting at Cleveland. In the late morning of such a day Tom found Jim wandering from stall to stall, looking at the horses being rubbed down and prepared for the afternoon's races. In a generous mood he bought his employee's lunch and took him to a seat in the grand stand. All afternoon the two men watched the races, smoked and quarreled. Tom contended that Bud Doble, the debonair, the dramatic, the handsome, was the greatest of all race horse drivers, and Jim Priest held Bud Doble in contempt. For him there was but one man of all the drivers he whole-heartedly admired, Pop Geers, the shrewd and silent. "That Geers of yours doesn't drive at all. He just sits up there like a stick," Tom grumbled. "If a horse can win all right, he'll ride behind him all right. What I like to see is a driver. Now you look at that Doble. You watch him bring a horse through the stretch."

Jim looked at his employer with something like pity in his eyes. "Huh," he exclaimed. "If you haven't got eyes you can't see."

The farm hand had two strong loves in his life, his employer's daughter and the race horse driver, Geers. "Geers," he declared, "was a man born old and wise." Often he had seen Geers at the tracks on a morning before some important race. The driver sat on an upturned box in the sun before one of the horse stalls. All about him there was the bantering talk of horsemen and grooms. Bets were made and challenges given. On the tracks nearby horses, not entered in the races for that day, were being exercised. Their hoofbeats made a kind of music that made Jim's blood tingle. Negroes laughed and horses put their heads out at stall doors. The stallions neighed loudly and the heels of some impatient steed rattled against the sides of a stall.

Every one about the stalls talked of the events of the afternoon and Jim leaned against the front of one of the stalls and listened, filled with happiness. He wished the fates had made him a racing man. Then he looked at Pop Geers, the silent one, who sat for hours dumb and uncommunicative on a feed box, tapping lightly on the ground with his racing whip and chewing straw. Jim's imagination was aroused. He had once seen that other silent American, General Grant, and had been filled with admiration for him.

That was on a great day in Jim's life, the day on which he had seen Grant going to receive Lee's surrender at Appomattox. There had been a battle with the Union men pursuing the fleeing Rebs out of Richmond, and Jim, having secured a bottle of whisky, and having a chronic dislike of battles, had managed to creep away into a wood. In the distance he heard shouts and presently saw several men riding furiously down a road. It was Grant with his aides going to the place where Lee waited. They rode to the place near where Jim sat with his back against a tree and the bottle between his legs; then stopped. Then Grant decided not to take part in the ceremony. His clothes were covered with mud and his beard was ragged. He knew Lee and knew he would be dressed for the occasion. He was that kind of a man; he was one fitted for historic pictures and occasions. Grant wasn't. He told his aides to go on to the spot where Lee waited, told them what arrangements were to be made, then jumped his horse over a ditch and rode along a path under the trees toward the spot where Jim lay.

That was an event Jim never forgot. He was fascinated at the thought of what the day meant to Grant and by his apparent indifference. He sat silently by the tree and when Grant got off his horse and came near, walking now in the path where the sunlight sifted down through the trees, he closed his eyes. Grant came to where he sat and stopped, apparently thinking him dead. His hand reached down and took the bottle of whisky. For a moment they had something between them, Grant and Jim. They both understood that bottle of whisky. Jim thought Grant was about to drink, and opened his eyes a little. Then he closed them. The cork was out of the bottle and Grant clutched it in his hand tightly. From the distance there came a vast shout that was picked up and carried by voices far away. The wood seemed to rock with it. "It's done. The war's over," Jim thought. Then Grant reached over and smashed the bottle against the trunk of the tree above Jim's head. A piece of the flying glass cut his cheek and blood came. He opened his eyes and looked directly into Grant's eyes. For a moment the two men stared at each other and the great shout again rolled over the country. Grant went hurriedly along the path to where he had left his horse, and mounting, rode away.

Standing in the race track looking at Geers, Jim thought of Grant. Then his mind came back to this other hero. "What a man!" he thought. "Here he goes from town to town and from race track to race track all through the spring, summer and fall, and he never loses his head, never gets excited. To win horse races is the same as winning battles. When I'm at home plowing corn on summer afternoons, this Geers is away somewhere at some track with all the people gathered about and waiting. To me it would be like being drunk all the time, but you see he isn't drunk. Whisky could make him stupid. It couldn't make him drunk. There he sits hunched up like a sleeping dog. He looks as though he cared about nothing on earth, and he'll sit like that through three-quarters of the hardest race, waiting, taking advantage of every little stretch of firm hard ground on the track, saving his horse, watching, watching his horse too, waiting. What a man! He works the horse into fourth place, into third, into second. The crowd in the grand stand, such fellows as Tom Butterworth, have not seen what he's doing. He sits still. By God, what a man! He waits. He looks half asleep. If he doesn't have to do it, he makes no effort. If the horse has it in him to win without help he sits still. The people are shouting and jumping up out of their seats in the grand stand, and if that Bud Doble has a horse in the race he's leaning forward in the sulky, shouting at his horse and making a holy show of himself.

"Ha, that Geers! He waits. He doesn't think of the people but of the horse he's driving. When the time comes, just the right time, that Geers, he lets the horse know. They are one at that moment, like Grant and I were over that bottle of whisky. Something happens between them. Something inside the man says, 'now,' and the message runs along the reins to the horse's brain. It flies down into his legs. There is a rush. The head of the horse has just worked its way out in front by inches--not too soon, nothing wasted. Ha, that Geers! Bud Doble, huh!"

On the night of Clara's marriage after she and Hugh had disappeared down the county seat road, Jim hurried into the barn and, bringing out a horse, sprang on his back. He was sixty-three but could mount a horse like a young man. As he rode furiously toward Bidwell he thought, not of Clara and her adventure, but of her father. To both men the right kind of marriage meant success in life for a woman. Nothing else really mattered much if that were accomplished. He thought of Tom Butterworth, who, he told himself, had fussed with Clara just as Bud Doble often fussed with a horse in a race. He had himself been like Pop Geers. All along he had known and understood the mare colt, Clara. Now she had come through; she had won the race of life.

"Ha, that old fool!" Jim whispered to himself as he rode swiftly down the dark road. When the horse ran clattering over a small wooden bridge and came to the first of the houses of the town, he felt like one coming to announce a victory, and half expected a vast shout to come out of the darkness, as it had come in the moment of Grant's victory over Lee.

Jim could not find his employer at the hotel or in Main Street, but remembered a tale he had heard whispered. Fanny Twist the milliner lived in a little frame house in Garfield Street, far out at the eastern edge of town, and he went there. He banged boldly on the door and the woman appeared. "I've got to see Tom Butterworth," he said. "It's important. It's about his daughter. Something has happened to her."

The door closed and presently Tom came around the corner of the house. He was furious. Jim's horse stood in the road, and he went straight to him and took hold of the bit. "What do you mean by coming here?" he asked sharply. "Who told you I was here? What business you got coming here and making a show of yourself? What's the matter of you? Are you drunk or out of your head?"

Jim got off the horse and told Tom the news. For a moment the two stood looking at each other. "Hugh McVey--Hugh McVey, by crackies, are you right, Jim?" Tom exclaimed. "No missfire, eh? She's really gone and done it? Hugh McVey, eh? By crackies!"

"They're on the way to the county seat now," Jim said softly. "Missfire! Not on your life." His voice lost the cool, quiet tone he had so often dreamed of maintaining in great emergencies. "I figure they'll be back by twelve or one," he said eagerly. "We got to blow 'em out, Tom. We got to give that girl and her husband the biggest blowout ever seen in this county, and we got just about three hours to get ready for it."

"Get off that horse and give me a boost," Tom commanded. With a grunt of satisfaction he sprang to the horse's back. The belated impulse to philander that an hour before sent him creeping through back streets and alleyways to the door of Fanny Twist's house was all gone, and in its place had come the spirit of the man of affairs, the man who, as he himself often boasted, made things move and kept them on the move. "Now look here, Jim," he said sharply, "there are three livery stables in this town. You engage every horse they've got for the night. Have the horses hitched to any kind of rigs you can find, buggies, surreys, spring wagons, anything. Have them get drivers off the streets, anywhere. Then have them all brought around in front of the Bidwell House and held for me. When you've done that, you go to Henry Heller's house. I guess you can find it. You found this house where I was fast enough. He lives on Campus Street just beyond the new Baptist Church. If he's gone to bed you get him up. Tell him to get his orchestra together and have him bring all the lively music he's got. Tell him to bring his men to the Bidwell House as fast as he can get them there."

Tom rode off along the street followed by Jim Priest, running at the horse's heels. When he had gone a little way he stopped. "Don't let any one fuss with you about prices to-night, Jim," he called. "Tell every one it's for me. Tell 'em Tom Butterworth'll pay what they ask. The sky's the limit to-night, Jim. That's the word, the sky's the limit."

To the older citizens of Bidwell, those who lived there when every citizen's affairs were the affair of the town, that evening will be long remembered. The new men, the Italians, Greeks, Poles, Rumanians, and many other strange-talking, dark-skinned men who had come with the coming of the factories, went on with their lives on that evening as on all others. They worked in the night shift at the Corn-Cutting Machine Plant, at the foundry, the bicycle factory or at the big new Tool Machine Factory that had just moved to Bidwell from Cleveland. Those who were not at work lounged in the streets or wandered aimlessly in and out of saloons. Their wives and children were housed in the hundreds of new frame houses in the streets that now crept out in all directions. In those days in Bidwell new houses seemed to spring out of the ground like mushrooms. In the morning there was a field or an orchard on Turner Pike or on any one of a dozen roads leading out of town. On the trees in the orchard green apples hung down waiting, ready to ripen. Grasshoppers sang in the long grass beneath the trees.

Then appeared Ben Peeler with a swarm of men. The trees were cut and the song of the grasshopper choked beneath piles of boards. There was a great shouting and rattling of hammers. A whole street of houses, all alike, universally ugly, had been added to the vast number of new houses already built by that energetic carpenter and his partner Gordon Hart.

To the people who lived in these houses, the excitement of Tom Butterworth and Jim Priest meant nothing. Half sullenly they worked, striving to make money enough to take them back to their native lands. In the new place they had not, as they had hoped, been received as brothers. A marriage or a death there meant nothing to them.

To the old townsmen however, those who remembered Tom when he was a simple farmer and when Steve Hunter was looked upon with contempt as a boasting young squirt, the night rocked with excitement. Men ran through the streets. Drivers lashed their horses along roads. Tom was everywhere. He was like a general in charge of the defenses of a besieged town. The cooks at all three of the town's hotels were sent back into their kitchens, waiters were found and hurried out to the Butterworth house, and Henry Heller's orchestra was instructed to get out there at once and to start playing the liveliest possible music.

Tom asked every man and woman he saw to the wedding party. The hotel keeper was invited with his wife and daughter and two or three keepers of stores who came to the hotel to bring supplies were asked, commanded to come. Then there were the men of the factories, the office men and superintendents, new men who had never seen Clara. They also, with the town bankers and other solid fellows with money in the banks, who were investors in Tom's enterprises, were invited. "Put on the best clothes you've got in the world and have your women folks do the same," he said laughing. "Then you get out to my house as soon as you can. If you haven't any way to get there, come to the Bidwell House. I'll get you out."

Tom did not forget that in order to have his wedding party go as he wished, he would need to serve drinks. Jim Priest went from bar to bar. "What wine you got--good wine? How much you got?" he asked at each place. Steve Hunter had in the cellar of his house six cases of champagne kept there against a time when some important guest, the Governor of the State or a Congressman, might come to town. He felt that on such occasions it was up to him to see that the town, as he said, "did itself proud." When he heard what was going on he hurried to the Bidwell House and offered to send his entire stock of wine out to Tom's house, and his offer was accepted.

       *       *       *       *       *

Jim Priest had an idea. When the guests were all assembled and when the farm kitchen was filled with cooks and waiters who stumbled over each other, he took his idea to Tom. There was, he explained, a short-cut through fields and along lanes to a point on the county seat road, three miles from the house. "I'll go there and hide myself," he said. "When they come along, suspecting nothing, I'll cut out on horseback and get here a half hour before them. You make every one in the house hide and keep still when they drive into the yard. We'll put out all the lights. We'll give that pair the surprise of their lives."

Jim had concealed a quart bottle of wine in his pocket and, as he rode away on his mission, stopped from time to time to take a hearty drink. As his horse trotted along lanes and through fields, the horse that was bringing Clara and Hugh home from their adventure cocked his ears and remembered the comfortable stall filled with hay in the Butterworth barn. The horse trotted swiftly along and Hugh in the buggy beside Clara was lost in the same dense silence that all the evening had lain over him like a cloak. In a dim way he was resentful and felt that time was running too fast. The hours and the passing events were like the waters of a river in flood time, and he was like a man in a boat without oars, being carried helplessly forward. Occasionally he thought courage had come to him and he half turned toward Clara and opened his mouth, hoping words would come to his lips, but the silence that had taken hold of him was like a disease whose grip on its victim could not be broken. He closed his mouth and wet his lips with his tongue. Clara saw him do the thing several times. He began to seem animal-like and ugly to her. "It's not true that I thought of her and asked her to be my wife only because I wanted a woman," Hugh reassured himself. "I've been lonely, all my life I've been lonely. I want to find my way into some one's heart, and she is the one."

Clara also remained silent. She was angry. "If he didn't want to marry me, why did he ask me? Why did he come?" she asked herself. "Well, I'm married. I've done the thing we women are always thinking about," she told herself, her mind taking another turn. The thought frightened her and a shiver of dread ran over her body. Then her mind went to the defense of Hugh. "It isn't his fault. I shouldn't have rushed things as I have. Perhaps I'm not meant for marriage at all," she thought.

The ride homeward dragged on indefinitely. The clouds were blown out of the sky, the moon came out and the stars looked down on the two perplexed people. To relieve the feeling of tenseness that had taken hold of her Clara's mind resorted to a trick. Her eyes sought out a tree or the lights of a farmhouse far ahead and she tried to count the hoof beats of the horse until they had come to it. She wanted to hurry homeward and at the same time looked forward with dread to the night alone in the dark farmhouse with Hugh. Not once during the homeward drive did she take the whip out of its socket or speak to the horse.

When at last the horse trotted eagerly across the crest of the hill, from which there was such a magnificent view of the country below, neither Clara nor Hugh turned to look. With bowed heads they rode, each trying to find courage to face the possibilities of the night.

       *       *       *       *       *

In the farmhouse Tom and his guests waited in winelit suspense, and at last Jim Priest rode shouting out of a lane to the door. "They're coming-- they're coming," he shouted, and ten minutes later and after Tom had twice lost his temper and cursed the girl waitresses from the town hotels who were inclined to giggle, all was silent and dark about the house and the barnyard. When all was quiet Jim Priest crept into the kitchen, and stumbling over the legs of the guests, made his way to a front window where he placed a lighted candle. Then he went out of the house to lie on his back beneath a bush in the yard. In the house he had secured for himself a second bottle of wine, and as Clara with her husband turned in at the gate and drove into the barnyard, the only sound that broke the intense silence came from the soft gurgle of the wine finding its way down his throat.

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