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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