HotFreeBooks.com
Poor White
by Sherwood Anderson
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

Kate Chanceller was excited as Clara told the tale and listened with a fiery light burning in her eyes. Something in her manner encouraged Clara to tell also of her experiments with the school teacher and for the first time she got a sense of justice toward men by talking to the woman who was half a man. "I know that wasn't square," she said. "I know now, when I talk to you, but I didn't know then. With the school teacher I was as unfair as John May and my father were with me. Why do men and women have to fight each other? Why does the battle between them have to go on?"

Kate walked up and down before Clara and swore like a man. "Oh, hell," she exclaimed, "men are such fools and I suppose women are as bad. They are both too much one thing. I fall in between. I've got my problem too, but I'm not going to talk about it. I know what I'm going to do. I'm going to find some kind of work and do it." She began to talk of the stupidity of men in their approach to women. "Men hate such women as myself," she said. "They can't use us, they think. What fools! They should watch and study us. Many of us spend our lives loving other women, but we have skill. Being part women, we know how to approach women. We are not blundering and crude. Men want a certain thing from you. It is delicate and easy to kill. Love is the most sensitive thing in the world. It's like an orchid. Men try to pluck orchids with ice tongs, the fools."

Walking to where Clara stood by a table, and taking her by the shoulder, the excited woman stood for a long time looking at her. Then she picked up her hat, put it on her head, and with a flourish of her hand started for the door. "You can depend on my friendship," she said. "I'll do nothing to confuse you. You'll be in luck if you can get that kind of love or friendship from a man."

Clara kept thinking of the words of Kate Chanceller on the evening when she walked through the streets of the suburban village with Frank Metcalf, and later as the two sat on the car that took them back to the city. With the exception of another student named Phillip Grimes, who had come to see her a dozen times during her second year in the University, young Metcalf was the only one of perhaps a dozen men she had met since leaving the farm who had been attracted to her. Phillip Grimes was a slender young fellow with blue eyes, yellow hair and a not very vigorous mustache. He was from a small town in the northern end of the State, where his father published a weekly newspaper. When he came to see Clara he sat on the edge of his chair and talked rapidly. Some person he had seen in the street had interested him. "I saw an old woman on the car," he began. "She had a basket on her arm. It was filled with groceries. She sat beside me and talked aloud to herself." Clara's visitor repeated the words of the old woman on the car. He speculated about her, wondered what her life was like. When he had talked of the old woman for ten or fifteen minutes, he dropped the subject and began telling of another experience, this time with a man who sold fruit at a street crossing. It was impossible to be personal with Phillip Grimes. Nothing but his eyes were personal. Sometimes he looked at Clara in a way that I made her feel that her clothes were being stripped from her body, and that she was being made to stand naked in the room before her visitor. The experience, when it came, was not entirely a physical one. It was only in part that. When the thing happened Clara saw her whole life being stripped bare. "Don't look at me like that," she once said somewhat sharply, when his eyes had made her so uncomfortable she could no longer remain silent. Her remark had frightened Phillip Grimes away. He got up at once, blushed, stammered something about having another engagement, and hurried away.

In the street car, homeward bound beside Frank Metcalf, Clara thought of Phillip Grimes and wondered whether or not he would have stood the test of Kate Chanceller's speech regarding love and friendship. He had confused her, but that was perhaps her own fault. He had not insisted on himself at all. Frank Metcalf had done nothing else. "One should be able," she thought, "to find somewhere a man who respects himself and his own desires but can understand also the desires and fears of a woman." The street car went bouncing along over railroad crossings and along residence streets. Clara looked at her companion, who stared straight ahead, and then turned to look out of the car window. The window was open and she could see the interiors of the laborers' houses along the streets. In the evening with the lamps lighted they seemed cosy and comfortable. Her mind ran back to the life in her father's house and its loneliness. For two summers she had escaped going home. At the end of her first year in school she had made an illness of her uncle's an excuse for spending the summer in Columbus, and at the end of the second year she had found another excuse for not going. This year she felt she would have to go home. She would have to sit day after day at the farm table with the farm hands. Nothing would happen. Her father would remain silent in her presence. She would become bored and weary of the endless small talk of the town girls. If one of the town boys began to pay her special attention, her father would become suspicious and that would lead to resentment in herself. She would do something she did not want to do. In the houses along the streets through which the car passed, she saw women moving about. Babies cried and men came out of the doors and stood talking to one another on the sidewalks. She decided suddenly that she was taking the problem of her own life too seriously. "The thing to do is to get married and then work things out afterward," she told herself. She made up her mind that the puzzling, insistent antagonism that existed between men and women was altogether due to the fact that they were not married and had not the married people's way of solving such problems as Frank Metcalf had been talking about all afternoon. She wished she were with Kate Chancellor so that she could discuss with her this new viewpoint. When she and Frank Metcalf got off the car she was no longer in a hurry to go home to her uncle's house. Knowing she did not want to marry him, she thought that in her turn she would talk, that she would try to make him see her point of view as all the afternoon he had been trying to make her see his.

For an hour the two people walked about and Clara talked. She forgot about the passage of time and the fact that she had not dined. Not wishing to talk of marriage, she talked instead of the possibility of friendship between men and women. As she talked her own mind seemed to her to have become clearer. "It's all foolishness your going on as you have," she declared. "I know how dissatisfied and unhappy you sometimes are. I often feel that way myself. Sometimes I think it's marriage I want. I really think I want to draw close to some one. I believe every one is hungry for that experience. We all want something we are not willing to pay for. We want to steal it or have it given us. That's what's the matter with me, and that's what's the matter with you."

They came to the Woodburn house, and turning in stood on a porch in the darkness by the front door. At the back of the house Clara could see a light burning. Her aunt and uncle were at the eternal figuring and knitting. They were finding a substitute for living. It was the thing Frank Metcalf was protesting against and was the real reason for her own constant secret protest. She took hold of the lapel of his coat, intending to make a plea, to urge upon him the idea of a friendship that would mean something to them both. In the darkness she could not see his rather heavy, sullen face. The maternal instinct became strong in her and she thought of him as a wayward, dissatisfied boy, wanting love and understanding as she had wanted to be loved and understood by her father when life in the moment of the awakening of her womanhood seemed ugly and brutal. With her free hand she stroked the sleeve of his coat. Her gesture was misunderstood by the man who was not thinking of her words but of her body and of his hunger to possess it. He took her into his arms and held her tightly against his breast. She tried to struggle, to tear herself away but, although she was strong and muscular, she found herself unable to move. As he held her uncle, who had heard the two people come up the steps to the door, threw it open. Both he and his wife had on several occasions warned Clara to have nothing to do with young Metcalf. One day when he had sent flowers to the house, her aunt had urged her to refuse to receive them. "He's a bad, dissipated, wicked man," she had said. "Have nothing to do with him." When he saw his niece in the arms of the man who had been the subject of so much discussion in his own house and in every respectable house in Columbus, Henderson Woodburn was furious. He forgot the fact that young Metcalf was the son of the president of the company of which he was treasurer. It seemed to him that some sort of a personal insult had been thrown at him by a common ruffian. "Get out of here," he screamed. "What do you mean, you nasty villain? Get out of here."

Frank Metcalf went off along the street laughing defiantly, and Clara went into the house. The sliding doors that led into the living room had been thrown open and the light from a hanging lamp streamed in upon her. Her hair was disheveled and her hat twisted to one side. The man and woman stared at her. The knitting needles and a sheet of paper held in their hands suggested what they had been doing while Clara was getting another lesson from life. Her aunt's hands trembled and the knitting needles clicked together. Nothing was said and the confused and angry girl ran up a stairway to her own room. She locked herself in and knelt on the floor by the bed. She did not pray. Her association with Kate Chanceller had given her another outlet for her feelings. Pounding with her fists on the bed coverings, she swore. "Fools, damned fools, the world is filled with nothing but a lot of damned fools."



CHAPTER X

Clara Butterworth left Bidwell, Ohio, in September of the year in which Steve Hunter's plant-setting machine company went into the hands of a receiver, and in January of the next year that enterprising young man, together with Tom Butterworth, bought the plant. In March a new company was organized and at once began making Hugh's corn-cutting machine, a success from the beginning. The failure of the first company and the sale of the plant had created a furor in the town. Both Steve and Tom Butterworth could, however, point to the fact that they had held on to their stock and lost their money in common with every one else. Tom had indeed sold his stock because he needed ready money, as he explained, but had shown his good faith by buying again just before the failure. "Do you suppose I would have done that had I known what was up?" he asked the men assembled in the stores. "Go look at the books of the company. Let's have an investigation here. You will find that Steve and I stuck to the rest of the stockholders. We lost our money with the rest. If any one was crooked and when they saw a failure coming went and got out from under at the expense of some one else, it wasn't Steve and me. The books of the company will show we were game. It wasn't our fault the plant-setting machine wouldn't work."

In the back room of the bank, John Clark and young Gordon Hart cursed Steve and Tom, who, they declared, had sold them out. They had lost no money by the failure, but on the other hand they had gained nothing. The four men had sent in a bid for the plant when it was put up for sale, but as they expected no competition, they had not bid very much. It had gone to a firm of Cleveland lawyers who bid a little more, and later had been resold at private sale to Steve and Tom. An investigation was started and it was found that Steve and Tom held large blocks of stock in the defunct company, while the bankers held practically none. Steve openly said that he had known of the possibility of failure for some time and had warned the larger stock-holders and asked them not to sell their stock. "While I was working my head off trying to save the company, what were they up to?" he asked sharply, and his question was repeated in the stores and in the homes of the people.

The truth of the matter, and the thing the town never found out, was that from the beginning Steve had intended to get the plant for himself, but at the last had decided it would be better to take some one in with him. He was afraid of John Clark. For two or three days he thought about the matter and decided that the banker was not to be trusted. "He's too good a friend to Tom Butterworth," he told himself. "If I tell him my scheme, he'll tell Tom. I'll go to Tom myself. He's a money maker and a man who knows the difference between a bicycle and a wheelbarrow when you put one of them into bed with him."

Steve drove out to Tom's house late one evening in September. He hated to go but was convinced it would be better to do so. "I don't want to burn all my bridges behind me," he told himself. "I've got to have at least one friend among the solid men here in town. I've got to do business with these rubes, maybe all my life. I can't shut myself off too much, at least not yet a while."

When Steve got to the farm he asked Tom to get into his buggy, and the two men went for a long drive. The horse, a gray gelding with one blind eye hired for the occasion from liveryman Neighbors, went slowly along through the hill country south of Bidwell. He had hauled hundreds of young men with their sweethearts. Ambling slowly along, thinking perhaps of his own youth and of the tyranny of man that had made him a gelding, he knew that as long as the moon shone and the intense voiceless quiet continued to reign over the two people in the buggy, the whip would not come out of its socket and he would not be expected to hurry.

On the September evening, however, the gray gelding had behind him such a load as he had never carried before. The two people in the buggy on that evening were not foolish, meandering sweethearts, thinking only of love, and allowing themselves to be influenced in their mood by the beauty of the night, the softness of the black shadows in the road, and the gentle night winds that crept down over the crests of hills. They were solid business men, mentors of the new age, the kind of men who, in the future of America and perhaps of the whole world, were to be the makers of governments, the molders of public opinion, the owners of the press, the publishers of books, buyers of pictures, and in the goodness of their hearts, the feeders of an occasional starving and improvident poet, lost on other roads. In any event the two men sat in the buggy and the gray gelding meandered along through the hills. Great splashes of moonlight lay in the road. By chance it was on the same evening that Clara Butterworth left home to become a student in the State University. Remembering the kindness and tenderness of the rough old farm hand, Jim Priest, who had brought her to the station, she lay in her berth in the sleeping car and looked out at the roads, washed with moonlight, that slid away into the distance like ghosts. She thought of her father on that night and of the misunderstanding that had grown up between them. For the moment she was tender with regrets. "After all, Jim Priest and my father must be a good deal alike," she thought. "They have lived on the same farm, eaten the same food; they both love horses. There can't be any great difference between them." All night she thought of the matter. An obsession, that the whole world was aboard the moving train and that, as it ran swiftly along, it was carrying the people of the world into some strange maze of misunderstanding, took possession of her. So strong was it that it affected her deeply buried unconscious self and made her terribly afraid. It seemed to her that the walls of the sleeping-car berth were like the walls of a prison that had shut her away from the beauty of life. The walls seemed to close in upon her. The walls, like life itself, were shutting in upon her youth and her youthful desire to reach a hand out of the beauty in herself to the buried beauty in others. She sat up in the berth and forced down a desire in herself to break the car window and leap out of the swiftly moving train into the quiet night bathed with moonlight. With girlish generosity she took upon her own shoulders the responsibility for the misunderstanding that had grown up between herself and her father. Later she lost the impulse that led her to come to that decision, but during that night it persisted. It was, in spite of the terror caused by the hallucination regarding the moving walls of the berth that seemed about to crush her and that came back time after time, the most beautiful night she had ever lived through, and it remained in her memory throughout her life. She in fact came to think later of that night as the time when, most of all, it would have been beautiful and right for her to have been able to give herself to a lover. Although she did not know it, the kiss on the cheek from the bewhiskered lips of Jim Priest had no doubt something to do with that thought when it came.

And while the girl fought her battle with the strangeness of life and tried to break through the imaginary walls that shut her off from the opportunity to live, her father also rode through the night. With a shrewd eye he watched the face of Steve Hunter. It had already begun to get a little fat, but Tom realized suddenly that it was the face of a man of ability. There was something about the jowls that made Tom, who had dealt much in live stock, think of the face of a pig. "The man goes after what he wants. He's greedy," the farmer thought. "Now he's up to something. To get what he wants he'll give me a chance to get something I want. He's going to make some kind of proposal to me in connection with the factory. He's hatched up a scheme to shut Gordon Hart and John Clark out because he doesn't want too many partners. All right, I'll go in with him. Either one of them would have done the same thing had they had the chance."

Steve smoked a black cigar and talked. As he grew more sure of himself and the affairs that absorbed him, he also became more smooth and persuasive in the matter of words. He talked for a time of the necessity of certain men's surviving and growing constantly stronger and stronger in the industrial world. "It's necessary for the good of the community," he said. "A few fairly strong men are a good thing for a town, but if they are fewer and relatively stronger it's better." He turned to look sharply at his companion. "Well," he exclaimed, "we talked there in the bank of what we would do when things went to pieces down at the factory, but there were too many men in the scheme. I didn't realize it at the time, but I do now." He knocked the ashes off his cigar and laughed. "You know what they did, don't you?" he asked. "I asked you all not to sell any of your stock. I didn't want to get the whole town bitter. They wouldn't have lost anything. I promised to see them through, to get the plant for them at a low price, to put them in the way to make some real money. They played the game in a small-town way. Some men can think of thousands of dollars, others have to think of hundreds. It's all their minds are big enough to comprehend. They snatch at a little measly advantage and miss the big one. That's what these men have done."

For a long time the two rode in silence. Tom, who had also sold his stock, wondered if Steve knew. He decided he did. "However, he's decided to deal with me. He needs some one and has chosen me," he thought. He made up his mind to be bold. After all, Steve was young. Only a year or two before he was nothing but a young upstart and the very boys in the street laughed at him. Tom grew a little indignant, but was careful to take thought before he spoke. "Perhaps, although he's young and don't look like much, he's a faster and shrewder thinker than any of us," he told himself.

"You do talk like a fellow who has something up his sleeve," he said laughing. "If you want to know, I sold my stock the same as the others. I wasn't going to take a chance of being a loser if I could help it. It may be the small-town way, but you know things maybe I don't know. You can't blame me for living up to my lights. I always did believe in the survival of the fittest and I got a daughter to support and put through college. I want to make a lady of her. You ain't got any kids yet and you're younger. Maybe you want to take chances I don't want to take. How do I know what you're up to?"

Again the two rode in silence. Steve had prepared himself for the talk. He knew there was a chance that, in its turn, the corn-cutting machine Hugh had invented might not prove practical and that in the end he might be left with a factory on his hands and with nothing to manufacture in it. He did not, however, hesitate. Again, as on the day in the bank when he was confronted by the two older men, he made a bluff. "Well, you can come in or stay out, just as you wish," he said a little sharply. "I'm going to get hold of that factory, if I can, and I'm going to manufacture corn-cutting machines. Already I have promises of orders enough to keep running for a year. I can't take you in with me and have it said around town you were one of the fellows who sold out the small investors. I've got a hundred thousand dollars of stock in the company. You can have half of it. I'll take your note for the fifty thousand. You won't ever have to pay it. The earnings of the new factory will clean you up. You got to come clean, though. Of course you can go get John Clark and come out and make an open fight to get the factory yourselves, if you want to. I own the rights to the corn-cutting machine and will take it somewhere else and manufacture it. I don't mind telling you that, if we split up, I will pretty well advertise what you three fellows did to the small investors after I asked you not to do it. You can all stay here and own your empty factory and get what satisfaction you can out of the love and respect you'll get from the people. You can do what you please. I don't care. My hands are clean. I ain't done anything I'm ashamed of, and if you want to come in with me, you and I together will pull off something in this town we don't neither one of us have to be ashamed of."

The two men drove back to the Butterworth farm house and Tom got out of the buggy. He intended to tell Steve to go to the devil, but as they drove along the road, he changed his mind. The young school teacher from Bidwell, who had come on several occasions to call on his daughter Clara, was on that night abroad with another young woman. He sat in a buggy with his arm around her waist and drove slowly through the hill country. Tom and Steve drove past them and the farmer, seeing in the moonlight the woman in the arms of the man, imagined his daughter in her place. The thought made him furious. "I'm losing the chance to be a big man in the town here in order to play safe and be sure of money to leave to Clara, and all she cares about is to galavant around with some young squirt," he thought bitterly. He began to see himself as a wronged and unappreciated father. When he got out of the buggy, he stood for a moment by the wheel and looked hard at Steve. "I'm as good a sport as you are," he said finally. "Bring around your stock and I'll give you the note. That's all it will be, you understand: just my note. I don't promise to back it up with any collateral and I don't expect you to offer it for sale." Steve leaned out of the buggy and took him by the hand. "I won't sell your note, Tom," he said. "I'll put it away. I want a partner to help me. You and I are going to do things together."

The young promoter drove off along the road, and Tom went into the house and to bed. Like his daughter he did not sleep. For a time he thought of her and in imagination saw her again in the buggy with the school teacher who had her in his arms. The thought made him stir restlessly about beneath the sheets. "Damn women anyway," he muttered. To relieve his mind he thought of other things. "I'll make out a deed and turn three of my farms over to Clara," he decided shrewdly. "If things go wrong we won't be entirely broke. I know Charlie Jacobs in the court-house over at the county seat. I ought to be able to get a deed recorded without any one knowing it if I oil Charlie's hand a little."

* * * * *

Clara's last two weeks in the Woodburn household were spent in the midst of a struggle, no less intense because no words were said. Both Henderson Wood, burn and his wife felt that Clara owed them an explanation of the scene at the front door with Frank Metcalf. When she did not offer it they were offended. When he threw open the door and confronted the two people, the plow manufacturer had got an impression that Clara was trying to escape Frank Metcalf's embraces. He told his wife that he did not think she was to blame for the scene on the front porch. Not being the girl's father he could look at the matter coldly. "She's a good girl," he declared. "That beast of a Frank Metcalf is all to blame. I daresay he followed her home. She's upset now, but in the morning she'll tell us the story of what happened."

The days went past and Clara said nothing. During her last week in the house she and the two older people scarcely spoke. The young woman was in an odd way relieved. Every evening she went to dine with Kate Chanceller who, when she heard the story of the afternoon in the suburb and the incident on the porch, went off without Clara's knowing of it and had a talk with Henderson Woodburn in his office. After the talk the manufacturer was puzzled and just a little afraid of both Clara and her friend. He tried to tell his wife about it, but was not very clear. "I can't make it out," he said. "She is the kind of woman I can't understand, that Kate. She says Clara wasn't to blame for what happened between her and Frank Metcalf, but don't want to tell us the story, because she thinks young Metcalf wasn't to blame either." Although he had been respectful and courteous as he listened to Kate's talk, he grew angry when he tried to tell his wife what she had said. "I'm afraid it was just a lot of mixed up nonsense," he declared. "It makes me glad we haven't a daughter. If neither of them were to blame what were they up to? What's getting the matter with the women of the new generation? When you come down to it what's the matter with Kate Chanceller?"

The plow manufacturer advised his wife to say nothing to Clara. "Let's wash our hands of it," he suggested. "She'll go home in a few days now and we will say nothing about her coming back next year. Let's be polite, but act as though she didn't exist."

Clara accepted the new attitude of her uncle and aunt without comment. In the afternoon she did not come home from the University but went to Kate's apartment. The brother came home and after dinner played on the piano. At ten o'clock Clara started home afoot and Kate accompanied her. The two women went out of their way to sit on a bench in a park. They talked of a thousand hidden phases of life Clara had hardly dared think of before. During all the rest of her life she thought of those last weeks in Columbus as the most deeply satisfactory time she ever lived through. In the Woodburn house she was uncomfortable because of the silence and the hurt, offended look on her aunt's face, but she did not spend much time there. In the morning Henderson Woodburn ate his breakfast alone at seven, and clutching his ever present portfolio of papers, was driven off to the plow factory. Clara and her aunt had a silent breakfast at eight, and then Clara also hurried away. "I'll be out for lunch and will go to Kate's for dinner," she said as she went out of her aunt's presence, and she said it, not with the air of one asking permission as had been her custom before the Frank Metcalf incident, but as one having the right to dispose of her own time. Only once did her aunt break the frigid air of offended dignity she had assumed. One morning she followed Clara to the front door, and as she watched her go down the steps from the front porch to the walk that led to the street, called to her. Some faint recollection of a time of revolt in her own youth perhaps came to her. Tears came into her eyes. To her the world was a place of terror, where wolf-like men prowled about seeking women to devour, and she was afraid something dreadful would happen to her niece. "If you don't want to tell me anything, it's all right," she said bravely, "but I wish you felt you could." When Clara turned to look at her, she hastened to explain. "Mr. Woodburn said I wasn't to bother you about it and I won't," she added quickly. Nervously folding and unfolding her arms, she turned to stare up the street with the air of a frightened child that looks into a den of beasts. "O Clara, be a good girl," she said. "I know you're grown up now, but, O Clara, do be careful! Don't get into trouble."

The Woodburn house in Columbus, like the Butterworth house in the country south of Bidwell, sat on a hill. The street fell away rather sharply as one went toward the business portion of the city and the street car line, and on the morning when her aunt spoke to her and tried with her feeble hands to tear some stones out of the wall that was being built between them, Clara hurried along the street under the trees, feeling as though she would like also to weep. She saw no possibility of explaining to her aunt the new thoughts she was beginning to have about life and did not want to hurt her by trying. "How can I explain my thoughts when they're not clear in my own mind, when I am myself just groping blindly about?" she asked herself. "She wants me to be good," she thought. "What would she think if I told her that I had come to the conclusion that, judging by her standards, I have been altogether too good? What's the use trying to talk to her when I would only hurt her and make things harder than ever?" She got to a street crossing and looked back. Her aunt was still standing at the door of her house and looking at her. There was something soft, small, round, insistent, both terribly weak and terribly strong about the completely feminine thing she had made of herself or that life had made of her. Clara shuddered. She did not make a symbol of the figure of her aunt and her mind did not form a connection between her aunt's life and what she had become, as Kate Chanceller's mind would have done. She saw the little, round, weeping woman as a boy, walking in the tree-lined streets of a town, sees suddenly the pale face and staring eyes of a prisoner that looks out at him through the iron bars of a town jail. Clara was startled as the boy would be startled and, like the boy, she wanted to run quickly away. "I must think of something else and of other kinds of women or I'll get things terribly distorted," she told herself. "If I think of her and women like her I'll grow afraid of marriage, and I want to be married as soon as I can find the right man. It's the only thing I can do. What else is there a woman can do?"

As Clara and Kate walked about in the evening, they talked continually of the new position Kate believed women were on the point of achieving in the world. The woman who was so essentially a man wanted to talk of marriage and to condemn it, but continually fought the impulse in herself. She knew that were she to let herself go she would say many things that, while they might be true enough as regards herself, would not necessarily be true of Clara. "Because I do not want to live with a man or be his wife is not very good proof that the institution is wrong. It may be that I want to keep Clara for myself. I think more of her than of any one else I've ever met. How can I think straight about her marrying some man and becoming dulled to the things that mean most to me?" she asked herself. One evening, when the women were walking from Kate's apartment to the Woodburn house, they were accosted by two men who wanted to walk with them. There was a small park nearby and Kate led the men to it. "Come," she said, "we won't walk with you, but you may sit with us here on a bench." The men sat down beside them and the older one, a man with a small black mustache, made some remark about the fineness of the night. The younger man who sat beside Clara looked at her and laughed. Kate at once got down to business. "Well, you wanted to walk with us: what for?" she asked sharply. She explained what they had been doing. "We were walking and talking of women and what they were to do with their lives," she explained. "We were expressing opinions, you see. I don't say either of us had said anything that was very wise, but we were having a good time and trying to learn something from each other. Now what have you to say to us? You interrupted our talk and wanted to walk with us: what for? You wanted to be in our company: now tell us what you've got to contribute. You can't just come and walk with us like dumb things. What have you got to offer that you think will make it worth while for us to break up our conversation with each other and spend the time talking with you?"

The older man, he of the mustache, turned to look at Kate, then got up from the bench. He walked a little away and then turned and made a sign with his hand to his companion. "Come on," he said, "let's get out of here. We're wasting our time. It's a cold trail. They're a couple of highbrows. Come on, let's be on our way."

The two women again walked along the street. Kate could not help feeling somewhat proud of the way in which she had disposed of the men. She talked of it until they got to the door of the Woodburn house, and, as she went away along the street Clara thought she swaggered a little. She stood by the door and watched her friend until she had disappeared around a corner. A flash of doubt of the infallibility of Kate's method with men crossed her mind. She remembered suddenly the soft brown eyes of the younger of the two men in the park and wondered what was back of the eyes. Perhaps after all, had she been alone with him, the man might have had something to say quite as much to the point as the things she and Kate had been saying to each other. "Kate made the men look like fools, but after all she wasn't very fair," she thought as she went into the house.

* * * * *

Clara was in Bidwell for a month before she realized what a change had taken place in the life of her home town. On the farm things went on very much as always, except that her father was very seldom there. He had gone deeply into the project of manufacturing and selling corn-cutting machines with Steve Hunter, and attended to much of the selling of the output of the factory. Almost every month he went on trips to cities of the West. Even when he was in Bidwell, he had got into the habit of staying at the town hotel for the night. "It's too much trouble to be always running back and forth," he explained to Jim Priest, whom he had put in charge of the farm work. He swaggered before the old man who for so many years had been almost like a partner in his smaller activities. "Well, I wouldn't like to have anything said, but I think it just as well to have an eye on what's going on," he declared. "Steve's all right, but business is business. We're dealing in big affairs, he and I. I don't say he would try to get the best of me; I'm just telling you that in the future I'll have to be in town most of the time and can't think of things out here. You look out for the farm. Don't bother me with details. You just tell me about it when there is any buying or selling to do."

Clara arrived in Bidwell in the early afternoon of a warm day in June. The hill country through which her train came into town was in the full flush of its summer beauty. In the little patches of level land between the hills grain was ripening in the fields. Along the streets of the tiny towns and on dusty country roads farmers in overalls stood up in their wagons and scolded at the horses, rearing and prancing in half pretended fright of the passing train. In the forests on the hillsides the open places among the trees looked cool and enticing. Clara put her cheek against the car window and imagined herself wandering in cool forests with a lover. She forgot the words of Kate Chanceller in regard to the independent future of women. It was, she thought vaguely, a thing to be thought about only after some more immediate problem was solved. Just what the problem was she didn't definitely know, but she did know that it concerned some close warm contact with life that she had as yet been unable to make. When she closed her eyes, strong warm hands seemed to come out of nothingness and touch her flushed cheeks. The fingers of the hands were strong like the branches of trees. They touched with the firmness and gentleness of the branches of trees nodding in a summer breeze.

Clara sat up stiffly in her seat and when the train stopped at Bidwell got off and went to her waiting father with a firm, business-like air. Coming out of the land of dreams, she took on something of the determined air of Kate Chanceller. She stared at her father and an onlooker might have thought them two strangers, meeting for the purpose of discussing some business arrangement. A flavor of something like suspicion hung over them. They got into Tom's buggy, and as Main Street was torn up for the purpose of laying a brick pavement and digging a new sewer, they drove by a roundabout way through residence streets until they got into Medina Road. Clara looked at her father and felt suddenly very alert and on her guard. It seemed to her that she was far removed from the green, unsophisticated girl who had so often walked in Bidwell's streets; that her mind and spirit had expanded tremendously in the three years she had been away; and she wondered if her father would realize the change in her. Either one of two reactions on his part might, she felt, make her happy. The man might turn suddenly and taking her hand receive her into fellowship, or he might receive her as a woman and his daughter by kissing her.

He did neither. They drove in silence through the town and passed over a small bridge and into the road that led to the farm. Tom was curious about his daughter and a little uncomfortable. Ever since the evening on the porch of the farmhouse, when he had accused her of some unnamed relationship with John May, he had felt guilty in her presence but had succeeded in transferring the notion of guilt to her. While she was away at school he had been comfortable. Sometimes he did not think of her for a month at a time. Now she had written that she did not intend to go back. She had not asked his advice, but had said positively that she was coming home to stay. He wondered what was up. Had she got into another affair with a man? He wanted to ask, had intended to ask, but in her presence found that the words he had intended to say would not come to his lips. After a long silence Clara began to ask questions about the farm, the men who worked there, her aunt's health, the usual home-coming questions. Her father answered with generalities. "They're all right," he said, "every one and everything's all right."

The road began to lift out of the valley in which the town lay, and Tom stopped the horse and pointing with the whip talked of the town. He was relieved to have the silence broken, and decided not to say anything about the letter announcing the end of her school life. "You see there," he said, pointing to where the wall of a new brick factory arose above the trees that grew beside the river. "That's a new factory we're building. We're going to make corn-cutting machines there. The old factory's already too small. We've sold it to a new company that's going to manufacture bicycles. Steve Hunter and I sold it. We got twice what we paid for it. When the bicycle factory's started, he and I'll own the control in that too. I tell you the town's on the boom."

Tom boasted of his new position in the town and Clara turned and looked sharply at him and then looked quickly away. He was annoyed by the action and a flush of anger came to his cheeks. A side of his character his daughter had never seen before came to the surface. When he was a simple farmer he had been too shrewd to attempt to play the aristocrat with his farm hands, but often, as he went about the barns and as he drove along country roads and saw men at work in his fields, he had felt like a prince in the presence of his vassals. Now he talked like a prince. It was that that had startled Clara. There was about him an indefinable air of princely prosperity. When she turned to look at him she noticed for the first time how much his person had also changed. Like Steve Hunter he was beginning to grow fat. The lean hardness of his cheeks had gone, his jaws seemed heavier, even his hands had changed their color. He wore a diamond ring on the left hand and it glistened in the sunlight. "Things have changed," he declared, still pointing at the town. "Do you want to know who changed it? Well, I had more to do with it than any one else. Steve thinks he did it all, but he didn't. I'm the man who has done the most. He put through the plant-setting machine company, but that was a failure. When you come right down to it, things would have gone to pieces again if I hadn't gone to John Clark and talked and bluffed him into giving us money when we wanted it. I had most to do with finding the big market for our corn-cutters, too. Steve lied to me and said he had 'em all sold for a year. He didn't have any sold at all."

Tom struck the horse with the whip and drove rapidly along the road. Even when the climb became difficult he would not let the horse walk, but kept cracking the whip over his back. "I'm a different man than I was when you went away," he declared. "You might as well know it, I'm the big man in this town. It comes pretty near being my town when you come right down to it. I'm going to take care of every one in Bidwell and give every one a chance to make money, but it's my town now pretty near and you might as well know it."

Embarrassed by his own words, Tom talked to cover his embarrassment. Something he wanted very much to say got itself said. "I'm glad you went to school and fitted yourself to be a lady," he began. "I want you should marry pretty soon now. I don't know whether you met any one at school there or not. If you did and he's all right, it's all right with me. I don't want you should marry an ordinary man, but a smart one, an educated man, a gentleman. We Butterworths are going to be bigger and bigger people here. If you get married to a good man, a smart one, I'll build a house for you; not just a little house but a big place, the biggest place Bidwell ever seen." They came to the farm and Tom stopped the buggy in the road. He shouted to a man in the barnyard who came running for her bags. When she had got out of the buggy he immediately turned the horse about and drove rapidly away. Her aunt, a large, moist woman, met her on the steps leading to the front door, and embraced her warmly. The words her father had just spoken ran a riotous course through Clara's brain. She realized that for a year she had been thinking of marriage, had been wanting some man to approach and talk of marriage, but she had not thought of the matter in the way her father had put it. The man had spoken of her as though she were a possession of his that must be disposed of. He had a personal interest in her marriage. It was in someway not a private matter, but a family affair. It was her father's idea, she gathered, that she was to go into marriage to strengthen what he called his position in the community, to help him be some vague thing he called a big man. She wondered if he had some one in mind and could not avoid being a little curious as to who it could be. It had never occurred to her that her marriage could mean anything to her father beyond the natural desire of the parent that his child make a happy marriage. She began to grow angry at the thought of the way in which her father had approached the subject, but was still curious to know whether he had gone so far as to have some one in mind for the role of husband, and thought she would try to find out from her aunt. The strange farm hand came into the house with her bags and she followed him upstairs to what had always been her own room. Her aunt came puffing at her heels. The farm hand went away and she began to unpack, while the older woman, her face very red, sat on the edge of the bed. "You ain't been getting engaged to a man down there where you been to school, have you, Clara?" she asked.

Clara looked at her aunt and blushed; then became suddenly and furiously angry. Dropping the bag she had opened to the floor, she ran out of the room. At the door she stopped and turned on the surprised and startled woman. "No, I haven't," she declared furiously. "It's nobody's business whether I have or not. I went to school for an education. I didn't go to get me a man. If that's what you sent me for, why didn't you say so?"

Clara hurried out of the house and into the barnyard. She went into all of the barns, but there were no men about. Even the strange farm hand who had carried her bags into the house had disappeared, and the stalls in the horse and cattle barns were empty. Then she went into the orchard and climbing a fence went through a meadow and into the wood to which she had always fled, when as a girl on the farm she was troubled or angry. For a long time she sat on a log beneath a tree and tried to think her way through the new idea of marriage she had got from her father's words. She was still angry and told herself that she would leave home, would go to some city and get work. She thought of Kate Chanceller who intended to be a doctor, and tried to picture herself attempting something of the kind. It would take money for study. She tried to imagine herself talking to her father about the matter and the thought made her smile. Again she wondered if he had any definite person in mind as her husband, and who it could be. She tried to check off her father's acquaintances among the young men of Bidwell. "It must be some new man who has come here, some one having something to do with one of the factories," she thought.

After sitting on the log for a long time, Clara got up and walked under the trees. The imaginary man, suggested to her mind by her father's words, became every moment more and more a reality. Before her eyes danced the laughing eyes of the young man who for a moment had lingered beside her while Kate Chanceller talked to his companion that evening when they had been challenged on the streets of Columbus. She remembered the young school teacher, who had held her in his arms through a long Sunday afternoon, and the day when, as an awakening maiden, she had heard Jim Priest talking to the laborers in the barn about the sap that ran up the tree. The afternoon slipped away and the shadows of the trees lengthened. On such a day and alone there in the quiet wood, it was impossible for her to remain in the angry mood in which she had left the house. Over her father's farm brooded the passionate fulfillment of summer. Before her, seen through the trees, lay yellow wheat fields, ripe for the cutting; insects sang and danced in the air about her head; a soft wind blew and made a gentle singing noise in the tops of the trees; at her back among the trees a squirrel chattered; and two calves came along a woodland path and stood for a long time staring at her with their large gentle eyes. She arose and went out of the wood, crossed a falling meadow and came to a rail fence surrounding a corn field. Jim Priest was cultivating corn and when he saw her left his horses and came to her. He took both her hands in his and pumped her arms up and down. "Well, Lord A'mighty, I'm glad to see you," he said heartily. "Lord A'mighty, I'm glad to see you." The old farm hand pulled a long blade of grass out of the ground beneath the fence and leaning against the top rail began to chew it. He asked Clara the same question her aunt had asked, but his asking did not annoy her. She laughed and shook her head. "No, Jim," she said, "I seem to have made a failure of going away to school. I didn't get me a man. No one asked me, you see."

Both the woman and the old man became silent. Over the tops of the young corn they could see down the hillside into the distant town. Clara wondered if the man she was to marry was there. The idea of a marriage with her had perhaps been suggested to his mind also. Her father, she decided, was capable of that. He was evidently ready to go to any length to see her safely married. She wondered why. When Jim Priest began to talk, striving to explain his question, his words fitted oddly into the thoughts she was having in regard to herself. "Now about marriage," he began, "you see now, I never done it. I didn't get married at all. I don't know why. I wanted to and I didn't. I was afraid to ask, maybe. I guess if you do it you're sorry you did and if you don't you're sorry you didn't."

Jim went back to his team, and Clara stood by the fence and watched him go down the long field and turn to come back along another of the paths between the corn rows. When the horses came to where she stood, he stopped again and looked at her. "I guess you'll get married pretty soon now," he said. The horses started on again and he held the cultivating machine with one hand and looked back over his shoulder at her. "You're one of the marrying kind," he called. "You ain't like me. You don't just think about things. You do 'em. You'll be getting yourself married before very long. You are one of the kind that does."



CHAPTER XI

If many things had happened to Clara Butterworth in the three years since that day when John May so rudely tripped her first hesitating girlish attempt to run out to life, things had also happened to the people she had left behind in Bidwell. In so short a space of time her father, his business associate Steve Hunter, Ben Peeler the town carpenter, Joe Wainsworth the harness maker, almost every man and woman in town had become something different in his nature from the man or woman bearing the same name she had known in her girlhood.

Ben Peeler was forty years old when Clara went to Columbus to school. He was a tall, slender, stoop-shouldered man who worked hard and was much respected by his fellow townsmen. Almost any afternoon he might have been seen going through Main Street, wearing his carpenter's apron and with a carpenter's pencil stuck under his cap and balanced on his ear. He went into Oliver Hall's hardware store and came out with a large package of nails under his arm. A farmer who was thinking of building a new barn stopped him in front of the post-office and for a half hour the two men talked of the project. Ben put on his glasses, took the pencil out of his cap and made some notation on the back of the package of nails. "I'll do a little figuring; then I'll talk things over with you," he said. During the spring, summer and fall Ben had always employed another carpenter and an apprentice, but when Clara came back to town he was employing four gangs of six men each and had two foremen to watch the work and keep it moving, while his son, who in other times would also have been a carpenter, had become a salesman, wore fancy vests and lived in Chicago. Ben was making money and for two years had not driven a nail or held a saw in his hand. He had an office in a frame building beside the New York Central tracks, south of Main Street, and employed a book-keeper and a stenographer. In addition to carpentry he had embarked in another business. Backed by Gordon Hart, he had become a lumber dealer and bought and sold lumber under the firm name of Peeler and Hart. Almost every day cars of lumber were unloaded and stacked under sheds in the yard back of his office. He was no longer satisfied with his income as a workman but, under the influence of Gordon Hart, demanded also a swinging profit on the building materials. Ben now drove about town in a vehicle called a buckboard and spent the entire day hurrying from job to job. He had no time now to stop for a half hour's gossip with a prospective builder of a barn, and did not come to loaf in Birdie Spinks' drug-store at the end of the day. In the evening he went to the lumber office and Gordon Hart came over from the bank. The two men figured on jobs to be built, rows of workingmen's houses, sheds alongside one of the new factories, large frame houses for the superintendents and other substantial men of the town's new enterprises. In the old days Ben had been glad to go occasionally into the country on a barn-building job. He had liked the country food, the gossip with the farmer and his men at the noon hour and the drive back and forth to town, mornings and evenings. While he was in the country he managed to make a deal for his winter potatoes, hay for his horse, and perhaps a barrel of cider to drink on winter evenings. Now he had no time to think of such things. When a farmer came to see him he shook his head. "Get some one else to figure on your job," he advised. "You'll save money by getting a barn-building carpenter. I can't bother. I have too many houses to build." Ben and Gordon sometimes worked in the lumber office until midnight. On warm still nights the sweet smell of new-cut boards filled the air of the yard and crept in through the open windows, but the two men, intent on their figures, did not notice. In the early evening one or two teams came back to the yard to finish hauling lumber to a job where the men were to work on the next day. The voices of the men, talking and singing as they loaded their wagons, broke the silence. Later the wagons loaded high with boards went creaking away. When the two men grew tired and sleepy, they locked the office and walked through the yard to the driveway that led to a residence street. Ben was nervous and irritable. One evening they found three men, sleeping on a pile of boards in the yard, and drove them out. It gave both men something to think about. Gordon Hart went home and before he slept made up his mind that he would not let another day go by without getting the lumber in the yard more heavily insured. Ben had not handled affairs long enough to come quickly to so sensible a decision. All night he rolled and tumbled about in his bed. "Some tramp with his pipe will set the place afire," he thought. "I'll lose all the money I've made." For a long time he did not think of the simple expedient of hiring a watchman to drive sleepy and penniless wanderers away, and charging enough more for his lumber to cover the additional expense. He got out of bed and dressed, thinking he would get his shotgun out of the barn and go back to the yard and spend the night. Then he undressed and got into bed again. "I can't work all day and spend my nights down there," he thought resentfully. When at last he slept, he dreamed of sitting in the lumber yard in the darkness with the gun in his hand. A man came toward him and he discharged the gun and killed the man. With the inconsistency common to the physical aspect of dreams, the darkness passed away and it was daylight. The man he had thought dead was not quite dead. Although the whole side of his head was torn away, he still breathed. His mouth opened and closed convulsively. A dreadful illness took possession of the carpenter. He had an elder brother who had died when he was a boy, but the face of the man on the ground was the face of his brother. Ben sat up in bed and shouted. "Help, for God's sake, help! It's my own brother. Don't you see, it is Harry Peeler?" he cried. His wife awoke and shook him. "What's the matter, Ben," she asked anxiously. "What's the matter?" "It was a dream," he said, and let his head drop wearily on the pillow. His wife went to sleep again, but he stayed awake the rest of the night. When on the next morning Gordon Hart suggested the insurance idea, he was delighted. "That settles it of course," he said to himself. "It's simple enough, you see. That settles everything."

In his shop on Main Street Joe Wainsworth had plenty to do after the boom came to Bidwell. Many teams were employed in the hauling of building materials; loads of paving brick were being carted from cars to where they were to be laid on Main Street; and teams hauled earth from where the new Main Street sewer was being dug and from the freshly dug cellars of houses. Never had there been so many teams employed and so much repairing of harness to do. Joe's apprentice had left him, had been carried off by the rush of young men to the places where the boom had arrived earlier. For a year Joe had worked alone and had then employed a journeyman harness maker who had drifted into town drunk and who got drunk every Saturday evening. The new man was an odd character. He had a faculty for making money, but seemed to care little about making it for himself. Within a week after he came to town he knew every one in Bidwell. His name was Jim Gibson and he had no sooner come to work for Joe than a contest arose between them. The contest concerned the question of who was to run the shop. For a time Joe asserted himself. He growled at the men who brought harness in to be repaired, and refused to make promises as to when the work would be done. Several jobs were taken away and sent to nearby towns. Then Jim Gibson asserted himself. When one of the teamsters who had come to town with the boom came with a heavy work harness on his shoulder, he went to meet him. The harness was thrown with a rattling crash on the floor and Jim examined it. "Oh, the devil, that's an easy job," he declared. "We'll fix that up in a jiffy. You can have it to-morrow afternoon if you want it."

For a time Jim made it a practice to come to where Joe stood at work at his bench and consult with him regarding prices to be charged for work. Then he returned to the customer and charged more than Joe had suggested. After a few weeks he slopped consulting Joe at all. "You're no good," he exclaimed, laughing. "What you're doing in business I don't know." The old harness maker stared at him for a minute and then went to his bench and to work. "Business," he muttered, "what do I know about business? I'm a harness maker, I am."

After Jim came to work for him, Joe made in one year almost twice the amount he had lost in the failure of the plant-setting machine factory. The money was not invested in stock of any factory but lay in the bank. Still he was not happy. All day Jim Gibson, whom Joe had never dared tell the tales of his triumph as a workman and to whom he did not brag as he had formerly done to his apprentices, talked of his ability to get the best of customers. He had, he declared, managed, in the last place he had worked before he came to Bidwell, to sell a good many sets of harness as handmade that were in reality made in a factory. "It isn't like the old times," he said, "things are changing. We used to sell harness only to farmers or to teamsters right in our towns who owned their own horses. We always knew the men we did business with and always would know them. Now it's different. The men now, you see, who are here in this town to work—well, next month or next year they'll be somewhere else. All they care about you and me is how much work they can get for a dollar. Of course they talk big about honesty and all that stuff, but that's only their guff. They think maybe we'll fall for it and they'll get more for the money they pay out. That's what they're up to."

Jim tried hard to make his version of how the shop should be run clear to his employer. Every day he talked for hours regarding the matter. He tried to get Joe to put in a stock of factory-made harness and when he was unsuccessful was angry. "O the devil," he cried. "Can't you understand what you're up against? The factories are bound to win. For why? Look here, there can't any one but some old moss-back who has worked around horses all his life tell the difference between hand- and machine-sewed harness. The machine-made can be sold cheaper. It looks all right and the factories are able to put on a lot of do-dads. That catches the young fellows. It's good business. Quick sales and profits, that's the story." Jim laughed and then said something that made the shivers run up and down Joe's back. "If I had the money and was steady I'd start a shop in this town and show you up," he said. "I'd pretty near run you out. The trouble with me is I wouldn't stick to business if I had the money. I tried it once and made money; then when I got a little ahead I shut up the shop and went on a big drunk. I was no good for a month. When I work for some one else I'm all right. I get drunk on Saturdays and that satisfies me. I like to work and scheme for money, but it ain't any good to me when I get it and never will be. What I want you to do here is to shut your eyes and give me a chance. That's all I ask. Just shut your eyes and give me a chance."

All day Joe sat astride his harness maker's horse, and when he was not at work, stared out through a dirty window into an alleyway and tried to understand Jim's idea of what a harness maker's attitude should be toward his customers, now that new times had come. He felt very old. Although Jim was as old in years lived as himself, he seemed very young. He began to be a little afraid of the man. He could not understand why the money, nearly twenty-five hundred dollars he had put in the bank during the two years Jim had been with him, seemed so unimportant and the twelve hundred dollars he had earned slowly after twenty years of work seemed so important. As there was much repair work always waiting to be done in the shop, he did not go home to lunch, but every day carried a few sandwiches to the shop in his pocket. At the noon hour, when Jim had gone to his boarding-house, he was alone, and if no one came in, he was happy. It seemed to him the best time of the day. Every few minutes he went to the front door to look out. The quiet Main Street, on which his shop had faced since he was a young man just come home from his trade adventures, and which had always been such a sleepy place at the noon hour in the summer, was now like a battle-field from which an army had retreated. A great gash had been cut in the street where the new sewer was to be laid. Swarms of workingmen, most of them strangers, had come into Main Street from the factories by the railroad tracks. They stood in groups in lower Main Street by Wymer's tobacco store. Some of them had gone into Ben Head's saloon for a glass of beer and came out wiping their mustaches. The men who were digging the sewer, foreign men, Italians he had heard, sat on the banks of dry earth in the middle of the street. Their dinner pails were held between their legs and as they ate they talked in a strange language. He remembered the day he had come to Bidwell with his bride, the girl he had met on his trade journey and who had waited for him until he had mastered his trade and had a shop of his own. He had gone to New York State to get her and had arrived back in Bidwell at noon on just such another summer day. There had not been many people about, but every one had known him. On that day every one had been his friend. Birdie Spinks rushed out of his drug store and had insisted that he and his bride go home to dinner with him. Every one had wanted them to come to his house for dinner. It had been a happy, joyous time.

The harness maker had always been sorry his wife had borne him no children. He had said nothing and had always pretended he did not want them and now, at last, he was glad they had not come. He went back to his bench and to work, hoping Jim would be late in getting back from lunch. The shop was very quiet after the activity of the street that had so bewildered him. It was, he thought, like a retreat, almost like a church when you went to the door and looked in on a week day. He had done that once and had liked the empty silent church better than he did a church with a preacher and a lot of people in it. He had told his wife about the matter. "It was like the shop in the evening when I've got a job of work done and the boy has gone home," he had said.

The harness maker looked out through the open door of his shop and saw Tom Butterworth and Steve Hunter going along Main Street, engaged in earnest conversation. Steve had a cigar stuck in the corner of his mouth and Tom had on a fancy vest. He thought again of the money he had lost in the plant-setting machine venture and was furious. The noon hour was spoiled and he was almost glad when Jim came back from his mid-day meal.

The position in which he found himself in the shop amused Jim Gibson. He chuckled to himself as he waited on the customers who came in, and as he worked at the bench. One day when he came back along Main Street from the noon meal, he decided to try an experiment. "If I lose my job what difference does it make?" he asked himself. He stopped at a saloon and had a drink of whisky. When he got to the shop he began to scold his employer, to threaten him as though he were his apprentice. Swaggering suddenly in, he walked to where Joe was at work and slapped him roughly on the back. "Come, cheer up, old daddy," he said. "Get the gloom out of you. I'm tired of your muttering and growling at things."

The employee stepped back and watched his employer. Had Joe ordered him out of the shop he would not have been surprised, and as he said later when he told Ben Head's bartender of the incident, would not have cared very much. The fact that he did not care, no doubt saved him. Joe was frightened. For just a moment he was so angry he could not speak, and then he remembered that if Jim left him he would have to wait on trade and would have to dicker with the strange teamsters regarding the repairing of the work harness. Bending over the bench he worked for an hour in silence. Then, instead of demanding an explanation of the rude familiarity with which Jim had treated him, he began to explain. "Now look here, Jim," he pleaded, "don't you pay any attention to me. You do as you please here. Don't you pay any attention to me."

Jim said nothing, but a smile of triumph lit up his face. Late in the afternoon he left the shop. "If any one comes in, tell them to wait. I won't be gone very long," he said insolently. Jim went into Ben Head's saloon and told the bartender how his experiment had come out. The story was later told from store to store up and down the Main Street of Bidwell. "He was like a boy who has been caught with his hand in the jam pot," Jim explained. "I can't think what's the matter with him. Had I been in his, shoes I would have kicked Jim Gibson out of the shop. He told me not to pay any attention to him and to run the shop as I pleased. Now what do you think of that? Now what do you think of that for a man who owns his own shop and has money in the bank? I tell you, I don't know how it is, but I don't work for Joe any more. He works for me. Some day you come in the shop casual-like and I'll boss him around for you. I'm telling you I don't know how it is that it come about, but I'm the boss of the shop as sure as the devil."

All of Bidwell was looking at itself and asking itself questions. Ed Hall, who had been a carpenter's apprentice earning but a few dollars a week with his master, Ben Peeler, was now foreman in the corn-cutter factory and received a salary of twenty-five dollars every Saturday night. It was more money than he had ever dreamed of earning in a week. On pay nights he dressed himself in his Sunday clothes and had himself shaved at Joe Trotter's barber shop. Then he went along Main Street, fingering the money in his pocket and half fearing he would suddenly awaken and find it all a dream. He went into Wymer's tobacco store to get a cigar, and old Claude Wymer came to wait on him. On the second Saturday evening after he got his new position, the tobacconist, a rather obsequious man, called him Mr. Hall. It was the first time such a thing had happened and it upset him a little. He laughed and made a joke of it. "Don't get high and mighty," he said, and turned to wink at the men loafing in the shop. Later he thought about the matter and was sorry he had not accepted the new title without protest. "Well, I'm foreman, and a lot of the young fellows I've always known and fooled around with will be working under me," he told himself. "I can't be getting thick with them."

Ed walked along the street feeling very keenly the importance of his new place in the community. Other young fellows in the factory were getting a dollar and a half a day. At the end of the week he got twenty-five dollars, almost three times as much. The money was an indication of superiority. There could be no doubt about that. Ever since he had been a boy he had heard older men speak respectfully of men who possessed money. "Get on in the world," they said to young men, when they talked seriously. Among themselves they did not pretend that they did not want money. "It's money makes the mare go," they said.

Down Main Street to the New York Central tracks Ed went, and then turned out of the street and disappeared into the station. The evening train had passed and the place was deserted. He went into the dimly lighted waiting-room. An oil lamp, turned low, and fastened by a bracket to the wall made a little circle of light in a corner. The room was like a church in the early morning of a wintry day, cold and still. He went hurriedly to the light, and taking the roll of money from his pocket, counted it. Then he went out of the room and along the station platform almost to Main Street, but was not satisfied. On an impulse he returned to the waiting room again and, late in the evening on his way home, he stopped there for a final counting of the money before he went to bed.

Peter Fry was a blacksmith and had a son who was clerk in the Bidwell Hotel. He was a tall young fellow with curly yellow hair and watery blue eyes and smoked cigarettes, a habit that was an offense to the nostrils of the men of his times. His name was Jacob, but he was called in derision Fizzy Fry. The young man's mother was dead and he got his meals at the hotel and at night slept on a cot in the hotel office. He had a passion for gayly colored neckties and waistcoats and was forever trying unsuccessfully to attract the attention of the town girls. When he and his father met on the street, they did not speak to each other. Sometimes the father stopped and stared at his son. "How did I happen to be the father of a thing like that?" he muttered aloud.

The blacksmith was a square-shouldered, heavily built man with a bushy black beard and a tremendous voice. When he was a young man he sang in the Methodist choir, but after his wife died he stopped going to church and began putting his voice to other uses. He smoked a short clay pipe that had become black with age and that at night could not be seen against his black curly beard. Smoke rolled out of his mouth in clouds and appeared to come up out of his belly. He was like a volcanic mountain and was called, by the men who loafed in Birdie Spinks' drug store, Smoky Pete.

Smoky Pete was in more ways than one like a mountain given to eruptions. He did not get drunk, but after his wife died he got into the habit of having two or three drinks of whisky every evening. The whisky inflamed his mind and he strode up and down Main Street, ready to quarrel with any one his eye lighted upon. He got into the habit of roaring at his fellow citizens and making ribald jokes at their expense. Every one was a little afraid of him and he became in an odd way the guardian of the town morals. Sandy Ferris, a house painter, became a drunkard and did not support his family. Smoky Pete abused him in the public streets and in the sight of all men. "You cheap thing, warming your belly with whisky while jour children freeze, why don't you try being a man?" he shouted at the house painter, who staggered into a side street and went to sleep off his intoxication in a stall in Clyde Neighbors' livery barn. The blacksmith kept at the painter until the whole town took up his cry and the saloons became ashamed to accept his custom. He was forced to reform.

The blacksmith did not, however, discriminate in the choice of victims. His was not the spirit of the reformer. A merchant of Bidwell, who had always been highly respected and who was an elder in his church, went one evening to the county seat and there got into the company of a notorious woman known throughout the county as Nell Hunter. The two went into a little room at the back of a saloon and were seen by two Bidwell young men who had gone to the county seat for an evening of adventure. When the merchant, named Pen Beck, realized he had been seen, he was afraid the tale of his indiscretion would be carried to his home town, and left the woman to join the young men. He was not a drinking man, but began at once to buy drinks for his companions. The three got very drunk and drove home together late at night in a rig the young men had hired for the occasion from Clyde Neighbors. On the way the merchant kept trying to explain his presence in the company of the woman. "Don't say anything about it," he urged. "It would be misunderstood. I have a friend whose son has been taken in by the woman. I was trying to get her to let him alone."

The two young men were delighted that they had caught the merchant off his guard. "It's all right," they assured him. "Be a good fellow and we won't tell your wife or the minister of your church." When they had all the drinks they could carry, they got the merchant into the buggy and began to whip the horse. They had driven half way to Bidwell and all of them had fallen into a drunken sleep, when the horse became frightened at something in the road and ran away. The buggy was overturned and they were all thrown into the road. One of the young men had an arm broken and Pen Beck's coat was almost torn in two. He paid the young man's doctor's bill and settled with Clyde Neighbors for the damage to the buggy.

For a long time the story of the merchant's adventure did not leak out, and when it did, but a few intimate friends of the young men knew it. Then it reached the ears of Smoky Pete. On the day he heard it he could hardly bear to wait until evening came. He hurried to Ben Head's saloon, had two drinks of whisky and then went to stand with the loafers before Birdie Spinks' drug store. At half past seven Pen Beck turned into Main Street from Cherry Street, where he lived. When he was more than three blocks away from the crowd of men before the drug store, Smoky Pete's roaring voice began to question him. "Well, Penny, my lad, so you went for a night among the ladies?" he shouted. "You've been fooling around with my girl, Nell Hunter, over at the county seat. I'd like to know what you mean. You'll have to make an explanation to me."

The merchant stopped and stood on the sidewalk, unable to decide whether to face his tormentor or flee. It was just at the quiet time of the evening when the housewives of the town had finished their evening's work and stood resting by the kitchen doors. It seemed to Pen Beck that Smoky Pete's voice could be heard for a mile. He decided to face it out and if necessary to fight the blacksmith. As he came hurriedly toward the group before the drug store, Smoky Pete's voice took up the story of the merchant's wild night. He stepped out from the men in front of the store and seemed to be addressing himself to the whole street. Clerks, merchants, and customers rushed out of the stores. "Well," he cried, "so you made a night of it with my girl Nell Hunter. When you sat with her in the back room of the saloon you didn't know I was there. I was hidden under a table. If you'd done anything more than bite her on the neck I'd have come out and called you to time."

Smoky Pete broke into a roaring laugh and waved his arms to the people gathered in the street and wondering what it was all about. It was for him one of the really delicious spots of his life. He tried to explain to the people what he was talking about. "He was with Nell Hunter in the back room of a saloon over at the county seat," he shouted. "Edgar Duncan and Dave Oldham saw him there. He came home with them and the horse ran away. He didn't commit adultery. I don't want you to think that happened. All that happened was he bit my best girl, Nell Hunter, on the neck. That's what makes me so mad. I don't like to have her bitten by him. She is my girl and belongs to me."

The blacksmith, forerunner of the modern city newspaper reporter in his love of taking the center of the stage in order to drag into public sight the misfortunes of his fellows, did not finish his tirade. The merchant, white with anger, rushed up and struck him a blow on the chest with his small and rather fat fist. The blacksmith knocked him into the gutter and later, when he was arrested, went proudly off to the office of the town mayor and paid his fine.

It was said by the enemies of Smoky Pete that he had not taken a bath for years. He lived alone in a small frame house at the edge of town. Behind his house was a large field. The house itself was unspeakably dirty. When the factories came to town, Tom Butterworth and Steve Hunter bought the field intending to cut it into building lots. They wanted to buy the blacksmith's house and finally did secure it by paying a high price. He agreed to move out within a year but after the money was paid repented and wished he had not sold. A rumor began to run about town connecting the name of Tom Butterworth with that of Fanny Twist, the town milliner. It was said the rich farmer had been seen coming out of her shop late at night. The blacksmith also heard another story whispered in the streets. Louise Trucker, the farmer's daughter who had at one time been seen creeping through a side street in the company of young Steve Hunter, had gone to Cleveland and it was said she had become the proprietor of a prosperous house of ill fame. Steve's money, it was declared, had been used to set her up in business. The two stories offered unlimited opportunity for expansion in the blacksmith's mind, but while he was preparing himself to do what he called bringing the two men down in the sight and hearing of the whole town, a thing happened that upset his plans. His son Fizzy Fry left his place as clerk in the hotel and went to work in the corn-cutting machine factory. One day his father saw him coming from the factory at noon with a dozen other workmen. The young man had on overalls and smoked a pipe. When he saw his father he stopped, and when the other men had gone on, explained his sudden transformation. "I'm in the shop now, but I won't be there long," he said proudly. "You know Tom Butterworth stays at the hotel? Well, he's given me a chance. I got to stay in the shop for a while to learn about things. After that I'm to have a chance as shipping clerk. Then I'll be a traveler on the road." He looked at his father and his voice broke. "You haven't thought very much of me, but I'm not so bad," he said. "I don't want to be a sissy, but I'm not very strong. I worked at the hotel because there wasn't anything else I thought I could do."

Peter Fry went home to his house but could not eat the food he had cooked for himself on the tiny stove in the kitchen. He went outdoors and stood for a long time, looking out across the cow-pasture Tom Butterworth and Steve Hunter had bought and that they proposed should become a part of the rapidly growing city. He had himself taken no part in the new impulses that had come upon the town, except that he had taken advantage of the failure of the town's first industrial effort to roar insults at those of his townsmen who had lost their money. One evening he and Ed Hall had got into a fight about the matter on Main Street, and the blacksmith had been compelled to pay another fine. Now he wondered what was the matter with him. He had evidently made a mistake about his son. Had he made a mistake about Tom Butterworth and Steve Hunter?

The perplexed man went back to his shop and all the afternoon worked in silence. His heart had been set on the creation of a dramatic scene on Main Street, when he openly attacked the two most prominent men of the town, and he even pictured himself as likely to be put in the town jail where he would have an opportunity to roar things through the iron bars at the citizens gathered in the street. In anticipation of such an event, he had prepared himself to attack the reputation of other people. He had never attacked women but, if he were locked up, he intended to do so. John May had once told him that Tom Butterworth's daughter, who had been away to college for a year, had been sent away because she was in the family way. John May had claimed he was responsible for her condition. Several of Tom's farm hands he said had been on intimate terms with the girl. The blacksmith had told himself that if he got into trouble for publicly attacking the father he would be justified in telling what he knew about the daughter.

The blacksmith did not come into Main Street that evening. As he went home from work he saw Tom Butterworth standing with Steve Hunter before the post-office. For several weeks Tom had been spending most of his time away from town, had only appeared in town for a few hours at a time, and had not been seen on the streets in the evening. The blacksmith had been waiting to catch both men on the street at one time. Now that this opportunity had come, he began to be afraid he would not dare take it. "What right have I to spoil my boy's chances?" he asked himself, as he went rather heavily along the street toward his own house.

It rained on that evening and for the first time in years Smoky Pete did not go into Main Street. He told himself that the rain kept him at home, but the thought did not satisfy him. All evening he moved restlessly about the house and at half past eight went to bed. He did not, however, sleep, but lay with his trousers on and with his pipe in his mouth, trying to think. Every few minutes he took the pipe from his mouth, blew out a cloud of smoke and swore viciously. At ten o'clock the farmer, who had owned the cow-pasture back of his house and who still kept his cows there, saw his neighbor tramping about in the rain in the field and saying things he had planned to say on Main Street in the hearing of the entire town.

The farmer also had gone to bed early, but at ten o'clock he decided that, as the rain continued to fall and as it was growing somewhat cold, he had better get up and let his cows into the barn. He did not dress, but threw a blanket about his shoulders and went out without a light. He let down the bars separating the field from the barnyard and then saw and heard Smoky Pete in the field. The blacksmith walked back and forth in the darkness, and as the farmer stood by the fence, began to talk in a loud voice. "Well, Tom Butterworth, you're fooling around with Fanny Twist," he cried into the silence and emptiness of the night. "You're sneaking into her shop late at night, eh? Steve Hunter has set Louise Trucker up in business in a house in Cleveland. Are you and Fanny Twist going to open a house here? Is that the next industrial enterprise we're to have here in this town?"

The amazed farmer stood in the rain in the darkness, listening to the words of his neighbor. The cows came through the gate and went into the barn. His bare legs were cold and he drew them alternately up under the blanket. For ten minutes Peter Fry tramped up and down in the field. Once he came quite near the farmer, who drew himself down beside the fence and listened, filled with amazement and fright. He could dimly see the tall, old man striding along and waving his arms about. When he had said many bitter, hateful things regarding the two most prominent men of Bidwell, he began to abuse Tom Butterworth's daughter, calling her a bitch and the daughter of a dog. The farmer waited until Smoky Pete had gone back to his house and, when he saw a light in the kitchen, and fancied he could also see his neighbor cooking food at a stove, he went again into his own house. He had himself never quarreled with Smoky Pete and was glad. He was glad also that the field at the back of his house had been sold. He intended to sell the rest of his farm and move west to Illinois. "The man's crazy," he told himself. "Who but a crazy man would talk that way in the darkness? I suppose I ought to report him and get him locked up, but I guess I'll forget what I heard. A man who would talk like that about nice respectable people would do anything. He might set fire to my house some night or something like that. I guess I'll just forget what I heard."

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7     Next Part
Home - Random Browse