Poor White

by Sherwood Anderson

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Book Four: Chapter XVIII

Jim Priest was very drunk, but insisted on hitching a team to the Butterworth carriage and driving it loaded with guests to town. Every one laughed at him, but he drove up to the farmhouse door and in a loud voice declared he knew what he was doing. Three men got into the carriage and beating the horses furiously Jim sent them galloping away.

When an opportunity offered, Clara went silently out of the hot dining-room and through a door to a porch at the back of the house. The kitchen door was open and the waitresses and cooks from town were preparing to depart. One of the young women came out into the darkness accompanied by a man, evidently one of the guests. They had both been drinking and stood for a moment in the darkness with their bodies pressed together. "I wish it were our wedding night," the man's voice whispered, and the woman laughed. After a long kiss they went back into the kitchen.

A farm dog appeared and going up to Clara licked her hand. She went around the house and stood back of a bush in the darkness near where the carriages were being loaded. Her father with Steve Hunter and his wife came and got into a carriage. Tom was in an expansive, generous mood. "You know, Steve, I told you and several others my Clara was engaged to Alfred Buckley," he said. "Well, I was mistaken. The whole thing was a lie. The truth is I shot off my mouth without talking to Clara. I had seen them together and now and then Buckley used to come out here to the house in the evening, although he never came except when I was here. He told me Clara had promised to marry him, and like a fool I took his word. I never even asked. That's the kind of a fool I was and I was a bigger fool to go telling the story. All the time Clara and Hugh were engaged and I never suspected. They told me about it to-night."

Clara stood by the bush until she thought the last of the guests had gone. The lie her father had told seemed only a part of the evening's vulgarity. Near the kitchen door the waitresses, cooks and musicians were being loaded into the bus that had been driven out from the Bidwell House. She went into the dining-room. Sadness had taken the place of the anger in her, but when she saw Hugh the anger came back. Piles of dishes filled with food lay all about the room and the air was heavy with the smell of food. Hugh stood by a window looking out into the dark farmyard. He held his hat in his hand. "You might put your hat away," she said sharply. "Have you forgotten you're married to me and that you now live here in this house?" She laughed nervously and walked to the kitchen door.

Her mind still clung to the past and to the days when she was a child and had spent so many hours in the big, silent kitchen. Something was about to happen that would take her past away--destroy it, and the thought frightened her. "I have not been very happy in this house but there have been certain moments, certain feelings I've had," she thought. Stepping through the doorway she stood for a moment in the kitchen with her back to the wall and with her eyes closed. Through her mind went a troop of figures, the stout determined figure of Kate Chanceller who had known how to love in silence; the wavering, hurrying figure of her mother; her father as a young man coming in after a long drive to warm his hands by the kitchen fire; a strong, hard-faced woman from town who had once worked for Tom as cook and who was reported to have been the mother of two illegitimate children; and the figures of her childhood fancy walking over the bridge toward her, clad in beautiful raiment.

Back of these figures were other figures, long forgotten but now sharply remembered--farm girls who had come to work by the day; tramps who had been fed at the kitchen door; young farm hands who suddenly disappeared from the routine of the farm's life and were never seen again, a young man with a red bandana handkerchief about his neck who had thrown her a kiss as she stood with her face pressed against a window.

Once a high school girl from town had come to spend the night with Clara. After the evening meal the two girls walked into the kitchen and stood by a window, looking out. Something had happened within them. Moved by a common impulse they went outside and walked for a long way under the stars along the silent country roads. They came to a field where men were burning brush. Where there had been a forest there was now only a stump field and the figures of the men carrying armloads of the dry branches of trees and throwing them on the fire. The fire made a great splash of color in the gathering darkness and for some obscure reason both girls were deeply moved by the sight, sound, and perfume of the night. The figures of the men seemed to dance back and forth in the light. Instinctively Clara turned her face upward and looked at the stars. She was conscious of them and of their beauty and the wide sweeping beauty of night as she had never been before. A wind began to sing in the trees of a distant forest, dimly seen far away across fields. The sound was soft and insistent and crept into her soul. In the grass at her feet insects sang an accompaniment to the soft, distant music.

How vividly Clara now remembered that night! It came sharply back as she stood with closed eyes in the farm kitchen and waited for the consummation of the adventure on which she had set out. With it came other memories. "How many fleeting dreams and half visions of beauty I have had!" she thought.

Everything in life that she had thought might in some way lead toward beauty now seemed to Clara to lead to ugliness. "What a lot I've missed," she muttered, and opening her eyes went back into the dining-room and spoke to Hugh, still standing and staring out into the darkness.

"Come," she said sharply, and led the way up a stairway. The two went silently up the stairs, leaving the lights burning brightly in the rooms below. They came to a door leading to a bedroom, and Clara opened it. "It's time for a man and his wife to go to bed," she said in a low, husky voice. Hugh followed her into the room. He walked to a chair by a window and sitting down, took off his shoes and sat holding them in his hand. He did not look at Clara but into the darkness outside the window. Clara let down her hair and began to unfasten her dress. She took off an outer dress and threw it over a chair. Then she went to a drawer and pulling it out looked for a night dress. She became angry and threw several garments on the floor. "Damn!" she said explosively, and went out of the room.

Hugh sprang to his feet. The wine he had drunk had not taken effect and Steve Hunter had been forced to go home disappointed. All the evening something stronger than wine had been gripping him. Now he knew what it was. All through the evening thoughts and desires had whirled through his brain. Now they were all gone. "I won't let her do it," he muttered, and running quickly to the door closed it softly. With the shoes still held in his hand he crawled through a window. He had expected to leap into the darkness, but by chance his stocking feet alighted on the roof of the farm kitchen that extended out from the rear of the house. He ran quickly down the roof and jumped, alighting in a clump of bushes that tore long scratches on his cheeks.

For five minutes Hugh ran toward the town of Bidwell, then turned, and climbing a fence, walked across a field. The shoes were still gripped tightly in his hand and the field was stony, but he did not notice and was unconscious of pain from his bruised feet or from the torn places on his cheeks. Standing in the field he heard Jim Priest drive homeward along the road.

  "My bonny lies over the ocean,
  My bonny lies over the sea,
  My bonny lies over the ocean,
  O, bring back my bonny to me."

sang the farm hand.

Hugh walked across several fields, and when he came to a small stream, sat down on the bank and put on his shoes. "I've had my chance and missed it," he thought bitterly. Several times he repeated the words. "I've had my chance and I've missed," he said again as he stopped by a fence that separated the fields in which he had been walking. At the words he stopped and put his hand to his throat. A half-stifled sob broke from him. "I've had my chance and missed," he said again.

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