Poor White

by Sherwood Anderson

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Book Two: Chapter V

Hugh's first inventive effort stirred the town of Bidwell deeply. When word of it ran about, the men who had been listening to the talk of Judge Horace Hanby and whose minds had turned toward the arrival of the new forward-pushing impulse in American life thought they saw in Hugh the instrument of its coming to Bidwell. From the day of his coming to live among them, there had been much curiosity in the stores and houses regarding the tall, gaunt, slow-speaking stranger at Pickleville. George Pike had told Birdie Spinks the druggist how Hugh worked all day over books, and how he made drawings for parts of mysterious machines and left them on his desk in the telegraph office. Birdie Spinks told others and the tale grew. When Hugh walked alone in the streets during the evening and thought no one took account of his presence, hundreds of pairs of curious eyes followed him about.

A tradition in regard to the telegraph operator began to grow up. The tradition made Hugh a gigantic figure, one who walked always on a plane above that on which other men lived. In the imagination of his fellow citizens of the Ohio town, he went about always thinking great thoughts, solving mysterious and intricate problems that had to do with the new mechanical age Judge Hanby talked about to the eager listeners in the drug-store. An alert, talkative people saw among them one who could not talk and whose long face was habitually serious, and could not think of him as having daily to face the same kind of minor problems as themselves.

The Bidwell young man who had come down to the Wheeling station with a group of other young men, who had seen the evening train go away to the south, who had met at the station one of the town girls and had, in order to escape the others and be alone with her, taken her to the pump in George Pike's yard on the pretense of wanting a drink, walked away with her into the darkness of the summer evening with his mind fixed on Hugh. The young man's name was Ed Hall and he was apprentice to Ben Peeler, the carpenter who had sent his son to Cleveland to a technical school. He wanted to marry the girl he had met at the station and did not see how he could manage it on his salary as a carpenter's apprentice. When he looked back and saw Hugh standing on the station platform, he took the arm he had put around the girl's waist quickly away and began to talk. "I'll tell you what," he said earnestly, "if things don't pretty soon get on the stir around here I'm going to get out. I'll go over by Gibsonburg and get a job in the oil fields, that's what I'll do. I got to have more money." He sighed heavily and looked over the girl's head into the darkness. "They say that telegraph fellow back there at the station is up to something," he ventured. "It's all the talk. Birdie Spinks says he is an inventor; says George Pike told him; says he is working all the time on new inventions to do things by machinery; that his passing off as a telegraph operator is only a bluff. Some think maybe he was sent here to see about starting a factory to make one of his inventions, sent by rich men maybe in Cleveland or some other place. Everybody says they'll bet there'll be factories here in Bidwell before very long now. I wish I knew. I don't want to go away if I don't have to, but I got to have more money. Ben Peeler won't never give me a raise so I can get married or nothing. I wish I knew that fellow back there so I could ask him what's up. They say he's smart. I suppose he wouldn't tell me nothing. I wish I was smart enough to invent something and maybe get rich. I wish I was the kind of fellow they say he is."

Ed Hall again put his arm about the girl's waist and walked away. He forgot Hugh and thought of himself and of how he wanted to marry the girl whose young body nestled close to his own--wanted her to be utterly his. For a few hours he passed out of Hugh's growing sphere of influence on the collective thought of the town, and lost himself in the immediate deliciousness of kisses.

And as he passed out of Hugh's influence others came in. On Main Street in the evening every one speculated on the Missourian's purpose in coming to Bidwell. The forty dollars a month paid him by the Wheeling railroad could not have tempted such a man. They were sure of that. Steve Hunter the jeweler's son had returned to town from a course in a business college at Buffalo, New York, and hearing the talk became interested. Steve had in him the making of a live man of affairs, and he decided to investigate. It was not, however, Steve's method to go at things directly, and he was impressed by the notion, then abroad in Bidwell, that Hugh had been sent to town by some one, perhaps by a group of capitalists who intended to start factories there.

Steve thought he would go easy. In Buffalo, where he had gone to the business college, he had met a girl whose father, E. P. Horn, owned a soap factory; had become acquainted with her at church and had been introduced to her father. The soap maker, an assertive positive man who manufactured a product called Horn's Household Friend Soap, had his own notion of what a young man should be and how he should make his way in the world, and had taken pleasure in talking to Steve. He told the Bidwell jeweler's son of how he had started his own factory with but little money and had succeeded and gave Steve many practical hints on the organization of companies. He talked a great deal of a thing called "control." "When you get ready to start for yourself keep that in mind," he said. "You can sell stock and borrow money at the bank, all you can get, but don't give up control. Hang on to that. That's the way I made my success. I always kept the control."

Steve wanted to marry Ernestine Horn, but felt that he should show what he could do as a business man before he attempted to thrust himself into so wealthy and prominent a family. When he returned to his own town and heard the talk regarding Hugh McVey and his inventive genius, he remembered the soap maker's words regarding control, and repeated them to himself. One evening he walked along Turner's Pike and stood in the darkness by the old pickle factory. He saw Hugh at work under a lamp in the telegraph office and was impressed. "I'll lay low and see what he's up to," he told himself. "If he's got an invention, I'll get up a company. I'll get money in and I'll start a factory. The people here'll tumble over each other to get into a thing like that. I don't believe any one sent him here. I'll bet he's just an inventor. That kind always are queer. I'll keep my mouth shut and watch my chance. If there is anything starts, I'll start it and I'll get into control, that's what I'll do, I'll get into control."

       *       *       *       *       *

In the country stretching away north beyond the fringe of small berry farms lying directly about town, were other and larger farms. The land that made up these larger farms was also rich and raised big crops. Great stretches of it were planted to cabbage for which a market had been built up in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati. Bidwell was often in derision called Cabbageville by the citizens of nearby towns. One of the largest of the cabbage farms belonged to a man named Ezra French, and was situated on Turner's Pike, two miles from town and a mile beyond the Wheeling station.

On spring evenings when it was dark and silent about the station and when the air was heavy with the smell of new growth and of land fresh-turned by the plow, Hugh got out of his chair in the telegraph office and walked in the soft darkness. He went along Turner's Pike to town, saw groups of men standing on the sidewalks before the stores and young girls walking arm in arm along the street, and then came back to the silent station. Into his long and habitually cold body the warmth of desire began to creep. The spring rains came and soft winds blew down from the hill country to the south. One evening when the moon shone he went around the old pickle factory to where the creek went chattering under leaning willow trees, and as he stood in the heavy shadows by the factory wall, tried to imagine himself as one who had become suddenly clean-limbed, graceful, and agile. A bush grew beside the stream near the factory and he took hold of it with his powerful hands and tore it out by the roots. For a moment the strength in his shoulders and arms gave him an intense masculine satisfaction. He thought of how powerfully he could hold the body of a woman against his body and the spark of the fires of spring that had touched him became a flame. He felt new-made and tried to leap lightly and gracefully across the stream, but stumbled and fell in the water. Later he went soberly back to the station and tried again to lose himself in the study of the problems he had found in his books.

The Ezra French farm lay beside Turner's Pike a mile north of the Wheeling station and contained two hundred acres of land of which a large part was planted to cabbages. It was a profitable crop to raise and required no more care than corn, but the planting was a terrible task. Thousands of plants that had been raised from seeds planted in a seed-bed back of the barn had to be laboriously transplanted. The plants were tender and it was necessary to handle them carefully. The planter crawled slowly and painfully along, and from the road looked like a wounded beast striving to make his way to a hole in a distant wood. He crawled forward a little and then stopped and hunched himself up into a ball-like mass. Taking the plant, dropped on the ground by one of the plant droppers, he made a hole in the soft ground with a small three-cornered hoe, and with his hands packed the earth about the plant roots. Then he crawled on again.

Ezra the cabbage farmer had come west from one of the New England states and had grown comfortably wealthy, but he would not employ extra labor for the plant setting and the work was done by his sons and daughters. He was a short, bearded man whose leg had been broken in his youth by a fall from the loft of a barn. As it had not mended properly he could do little work and limped painfully about. To the men of Bidwell he was known as something of a wit, and in the winter he went to town every afternoon to stand in the stores and tell the Rabelaisian stories for which he was famous; but when spring came he became restlessly active, and in his own house and on the farm, became a tyrant. During the time of the cabbage setting he drove his sons and daughters like slaves. When in the evening the moon came up, he made them go back to the fields immediately after supper and work until midnight. They went in sullen silence, the girls to limp slowly along dropping the plants out of baskets carried on their arms, and the boys to crawl after them and set the plants. In the half darkness the little group of humans went slowly up and down the long fields. Ezra hitched a horse to a wagon and brought the plants from the seed-bed behind the barn. He went here and there swearing and protesting against every delay in the work. When his wife, a tired little old woman, had finished the evening's work in the house, he made her come also to the fields. "Come, come," he said, sharply, "we need every pair of hands we can get." Although he had several thousand dollars in the Bidwell bank and owned mortgages on two or three neighboring farms, Ezra was afraid of poverty, and to keep his family at work pretended to be upon the point of losing all his possessions. "Now is our chance to save ourselves," he declared. "We must get in a big crop. If we do not work hard now we'll starve." When in the field his sons found themselves unable to crawl longer without resting, and stood up to stretch their tired bodies, he stood by the fence at the field's edge and swore. "Well, look at the mouths I have to feed, you lazies!" he shouted. "Keep at the work. Don't be idling around. In two weeks it'll be too late for planting and then you can rest. Now every plant we set will help to save us from ruin. Keep at the job. Don't be idling around."

In the spring of his second year in Bidwell, Hugh went often in the evening to watch the plant setters at work in the moonlight on the French farm. He did not make his presence known but hid himself in a fence corner behind bushes and watched the workers. As he saw the stooped misshapen figures crawling slowly along and heard the words of the old man driving them like cattle, his heart was deeply touched and he wanted to protest. In the dim light the slowly moving figures of women appeared, and after them came the crouched crawling men. They came down the long row toward him, wriggling into his line of sight like grotesquely misshapen animals driven by some god of the night to the performance of a terrible task. An arm went up. It came down again swiftly. The three-cornered hoe sank into the ground. The slow rhythm of the crawler was broken. He reached with his disengaged hand for the plant that lay on the ground before him and lowered it into the hole the hoe had made. With his fingers he packed the earth about the roots of the plant and then again began the slow crawl forward. There were four of the French boys and the two older ones worked in silence. The younger boys complained. The three girls and their mother, who were attending to the plant dropping, came to the end of the row and turning, went away into the darkness. "I'm going to quit this slavery," one of the younger boys said. "I'll get a job over in town. I hope it's true what they say, that factories are coming."

The four young men came to the end of the row and, as Ezra was not in sight, stood a moment by the fence near where Hugh was concealed. "I'd rather be a horse or a cow than what I am," the complaining voice went on. "What's the good being alive if you have to work like this?"

For a moment as he listened to the voices of the complaining workers, Hugh wanted to go to them and ask them to let him share in their labor. Then another thought came. The crawling figures came sharply into his line of vision. He no longer heard the voice of the youngest of the French boys that seemed to come out of the ground. The machine-like swing of the bodies of the plant setters suggested vaguely to his mind the possibility of building a machine that would do the work they were doing. His mind took eager hold of that thought and he was relieved. There had been something in the crawling figures and in the moonlight out of which the voices came that had begun to awaken in his mind the fluttering, dreamy state in which he had spent so much of his boyhood. To think of the possibility of building a plant-setting machine was safer. It fitted into what Sarah Shepard had so often told him was the safe way of life. As he went back through the darkness to the railroad station, he thought about the matter and decided that to become an inventor would be the sure way of placing his feet at last upon the path of progress he was trying to find.

Hugh became absorbed in the notion of inventing a machine that would do the work he had seen the men doing in the field. All day he thought about it. The notion once fixed in his mind gave him something tangible to work upon. In the study of mechanics, taken up in a purely amateur spirit, he had not gone far enough to feel himself capable of undertaking the actual construction of such a machine, but thought the difficulty might be overcome by patience and by experimenting with combinations of wheels, gears and levers whittled out of pieces of wood. From Hunter's Jewelry Store he got a cheap clock and spent days taking it apart and putting it together again. He dropped the doing of mathematical problems and sent away for books describing the construction of machines. Already the flood of new inventions, that was so completely to change the methods of cultivating the soil in America, had begun to spread over the country, and many new and strange kinds of agricultural implements arrived at the Bidwell freight house of the Wheeling railroad. There Hugh saw a harvesting machine for cutting grain, a mowing machine for cutting hay and a long-nosed strange-looking implement that was intended to root potatoes out of the ground very much after the method pursued by energetic pigs. He studied these carefully. For a time his mind turned away from the hunger for human contact and he was content to remain an isolated figure, absorbed in the workings of his own awakening mind.

An absurd and amusing thing happened. After the impulse to try to invent a plant-setting machine came to him, he went every evening to conceal himself in the fence corner and watch the French family at their labors. Absorbed in watching the mechanical movements of the men who crawled across the fields in the moonlight, he forgot they were human. After he had watched them crawl into sight, turn at the end of the rows, and crawl away again into the hazy light that had reminded him of the dim distances of his own Mississippi River country, he was seized with a desire to crawl after them and to try to imitate their movements. Certain intricate mechanical problems, that had already come into his mind in connection with the proposed machine, he thought could be better understood if he could get the movements necessary to plant setting into his own body. His lips began to mutter words and getting out of the fence corner where he had been concealed he began to crawl across the field behind the French boys. "The down stroke will go so," he muttered, and bringing up his arm swung it above his head. His fist descended into the soft ground. He had forgotten the rows of new set plants and crawled directly over them, crushing them into the soft ground. He stopped crawling and waved his arm about. He tried to relate his arms to the mechanical arms of the machine that was being created in his mind. Holding one arm stiffly in front of him he moved it up and down. "The stroke will be shorter than that. The machine must be built close to the ground. The wheels and the horses will travel in paths between the rows. The wheels must be broad to provide traction. I will gear from the wheels to get power for the operation of the mechanism," he said aloud.

Hugh arose and stood in the moonlight in the cabbage field, his arms still going stiffly up and down. The great length of his figure and his arms was accentuated by the wavering uncertain light. The laborers, aware of some strange presence, sprang to their feet and stood listening and looking. Hugh advanced toward them, still muttering words and waving his arms. Terror took hold of the workers. One of the woman plant droppers screamed and ran away across the field, and the others ran crying at her heels. "Don't do it. Go away," the older of the French boys shouted, and then he with his brothers also ran.

Hearing the voices Hugh stopped and stared about. The field was empty. Again he lost himself in his mechanical calculations. He went back along the road to the Wheeling station and to the telegraph office where he worked half the night on a rude drawing he was trying to make of the parts of his plant setting machine, oblivious to the fact that he had created a myth that would run through the whole countryside. The French boys and their sisters stoutly declared that a ghost had come into the cabbage fields and had threatened them with death if they did not go away and quit working at night. In a trembling voice their mother backed up their assertion. Ezra French, who had not seen the apparition and did not believe the tale, scented a revolution. He swore. He threatened the entire family with starvation. He declared that a lie had been invented to deceive and betray him.

However, the work at night in the cabbage fields on the French farm was at an end. The story was told in the town of Bidwell, and as the entire French family except Ezra swore to its truth, was generally believed. Tom Foresby, an old citizen who was a spiritualist, claimed to have heard his father say that there had been in early days an Indian burying-ground on the Turner Pike.

The cabbage field on the French farm became locally famous. Within a year two other men declared they had seen the figure of a gigantic Indian dancing and singing a funeral dirge in the moonlight. Farmer boys, who had been for an evening in town and were returning late at night to lonely farmhouses, whipped their horses into a run when they came to the farm. When it was far behind them they breathed more freely. Although he continued to swear and threaten, Ezra never again succeeded in getting his family into the fields at night. In Bidwell he declared that the story of the ghost invented by his lazy sons and daughters had ruined his chance for making a decent living out of his farm.

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It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.