Authors: Gwen Bristow
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #Sagas, #Romance, #General
“Miss Bristow has the true gift of storytelling.”
“This absorbing story giving a thrilling picture of the foundation on which our West was built is heartily recommended.”
“An exciting tale of love and war in the tradition of
Gone with the Wind
… The kind of story that keeps readers tingling.”
“Absorbing and swift-paced, well written … The situations are historically authentic, the characterizations rigorous, well formed and definite. The ‘you-are-thereness’ is complete.”
The Christian Science Monitor
“Historical romance with all the thrills [and] a vivid sense of the historical personages and events of the time.”
New York Herald Tribune
“A grand job of storytelling, a story of enthralling swiftness.”
The New York Times
“Miss Bristow belongs among those Southern novelists who are trying to interpret the South and its past in critical terms. It may be that historians will alter some of the details of her picture. But no doubt life in a small river town in Louisiana during the years 1859-1885 was like the life revealed in
The Handsome Road
The New York Times
For Jeannette Deutsch
he river was silky in the late sun. On shore the light pierced the live-oaks with golden spikes, and the wind in the long gray moss made a soft undertone to the shouts of the boatmen.
While the men tied up the flatboat Judith leaned over the side washing some kerchiefs and a pair of her father’s nankeen breeches. It was hard to get clothes clean in the river. No matter how hard one scrubbed they had a yellowish tinge when they got dry. What a relief it would be to get done traveling and settle down again like civilized people, with a well of clear water and a big convenient fireplace for cooking. The men made the boat fast with ropes flung around a tree, and Judith’s brother started a fire on the bank. Her father sent the boatmen to look for game.
The flatboat bounced on the current. Judith spread the breeches and kerchiefs on deck to dry and began making herself tidy for supper. She combed out her hair—it was tawny like the river, and like the river unruly—and when she had pinned up her braids she got out a fresh kerchief and knotted it around her shoulders. Her mother had already gone ashore with the tripod and was setting it up over the fire. Judith picked up the cooking-pots and followed.
The men had brought out the dried corn and beans and jerked venison. Judith mixed a pot of succotash. As she slung the pot over the tripod she heard a voice call from the river.
“Good evening, my fellow-travelers!”
Judith started and looked up. Another flatboat was approaching the bend, and as the strange boatmen pushed down the current the owner of the boat waved toward the bank. He was tall and broad-shouldered, with a face ruddily tanned except where a scar cut a white line across his left cheek. His coat was of claret satin and there were silver buckles at his knees and on his shoes, and the sun glinting down his legs caught the shimmer of silk stockings. Judith stared. They had met other settlers on their way down the Mississippi, but never one who journeyed in such splendor as this.
“Good evening, sir,” Judith’s father called from the bank. He bowed with perfunctory courtesy, evidently having no great opinion of a man who would attack a wilderness in the jubilant audacity of satin.
The stranger grinned in return, unabashed. The sun caught red-gold lights in his hair, which was long and tied back with a black silk ribbon. “You are settling in Louisiana?” he called.
“Good. So am I. Permit me to present myself. Philip Larne, sir, at your service.”
“My compliments, Mr. Larne. My name is Mark Sheramy. These are my wife, my son Caleb and my daughter Judith.”
“My respects to you all. I trust we shall meet again.”
Mark Sheramy bowed. Young Mr. Larne touched his forehead as if meaning to doff his hat, but since he wore none the gesture had the effect of a jaunty dismissal. His flatboat had reached the bend, where a canebrake jutted into the river. Mr. Larne turned to look at Judith and he smiled again. His eyes did not leave her till the canebrake was between them.
Judith felt a tremor run down her back. She glanced uneasily at her parents lest they had observed this impudent attention, but her father was piling sticks on the fire and her mother was busy cleaning the grouse the boatmen had brought in. Judith fetched a pot of water, wondering if Mr. Larne had looked at her like that because he thought she was pretty. She was fifteen, old enough to want to be pretty, but her father said she was too young to be concerned with adornment and as she had never seen a mirror larger than six inches by eight it was hard to form much opinion of her looks. She knew she had eyes that were brownish gold like her hair, and her complexion was all right except for being sunburned, but glancing down at her gray cotton gown and her plain kerchief she found it hard to believe that a gentleman in satin and silver could notice her with admiration. Judith looked disapprovingly at the nut-colored garments of Caleb and her father. They had seemed very tidy and proper back home in Connecticut. But at home all decent farmers dressed like that, except when they rode to meeting, or to market on holidays. She wondered where Mr. Larne came from.
“Mother,” she said suddenly.
Mrs. Sheramy looked up from the grouse. “Yes, child?”
“That Mr. Larne,” said Judith. “He—he’s traveling all by himself, and maybe he spoke to us because he was lonesome. He’s tied up his boat just the other side of the canebrake. Don’t you think it might be nice if we asked him to have supper with us?”
“Why—yes,” said Mrs. Sheramy after an instant’s hesitation. She turned to her husband. “What do you think, Mark?”
Mark leaned on his gun.
“I hardly know,” he returned slowly. “He doesn’t look like very good company to me.”
“Why, father!” cried Judith. “He looks like a lord!”
Mark smiled slightly. “More like a good-for-nothing dandy. I’ve seen his kind. Cluttering up the colonies and making trouble for thrifty folk trying to establish homesteads and live in fear of the Lord.”
Judith jabbed a spoon into the succotash. “It’s positively unchristian of you to think hard of a gentleman just because he’s all dressed up.”
“Judith!” said her father.
“I’m sorry, sir.” She bit her lip. But she was gladly surprised to hear her mother say:
“After all, Mark, if the poor man has had nobody but those rough boatmen to cook for him all the way down the river he must be starved for a woman’s hand about his food. Why shouldn’t we ask him to supper?”
Mark shrugged. “Very well. Go ask him over, Judith.”
“Yes sir.” Judith hurried to push a path through the canes. The sun was slanting rapidly, but the stalks had a faint sparkle as she shoved them away. On the other side of the brake she stopped, quivery with sudden shyness. Philip Larne was sitting on the knotted root of a tree. His gun across his knees, he was watching the sky for game while his boatmen built a fire. Judith felt tongue-tied. He was not their sort; asking him to supper seemed a feat requiring intimacy with courts and ballrooms. She might have fled in silence if he had not at that moment caught sight of her and sprung to his feet, laying his gun against a tree.
“My charming semi-acquaintance!” he greeted her.
He came up and kissed her hand. Nobody had ever kissed her hand before. Judith curtseyed in a flutter of embarrassment.
“I—I beg your pardon, sir. But my mother—my mother sends her compliments, and wants to know if you’ll have supper with us tonight.”
Philip Larne’s blue eyes swept her up and down, and though his answer was all grace his lips twitched with amusement.
“I am honored, ma’am.”
“Then—then you’ll come, Mr. Larne?” she asked tremulously, pushing back against the canes again.
He began to laugh. “Wait a minute,” he exclaimed, taking her arm to make sure that she did so. “You are positively trembling, Miss Sheramy! Do you think I’m an Indian hankering for your scalp?”
“Of course not—but—” She hesitated, but he was so warmly friendly that before she knew it she was laughing too. “I’m not very used to strangers,” she confessed.
“Then it’s high time you got used to them,” he retorted. “Aren’t you moving into a brand-new country? Come sit down and talk to me.”
Judith drew back. “But I thought you were coming with me!”
“I’d love to. But—” The late sunshine skittered over his claret shoulders as he turned to look toward the river, where his boat lay moored. It was larger than most flatboats—nearly sixty feet long—with a narrow deck and an enormous cabin that had all its tiny windows shut tight. He must have a quantity of household goods to need so much space for storing them, which was odd, for you hardly expected a man to acquire household goods before he had a household. And evidently he had no family on the flatboat. “I can’t possibly leave my boat unguarded,” he was saying to her.
“But your boatmen, sir!” Judith protested. “They have guns.”
His blue eyes twinkled upon her. “They’re loyal enough as long as I’m watching them. But I wouldn’t trust any crew on the river with a costly cargo.”
“A costly cargo?” she repeated. “Then you’re a trader? Bringing down merchandise?”
He started slightly and his hand on her arm tightened. “What did you think I was bringing?”
“Why—plows and chairs and spinning-wheels, like us,” she returned in surprise, but as he did not release her she felt a flash of irritation. “I never thought about it at all,” she snapped. “And I’ll thank you to quit holding me like a constable!”
“Forgive me. I didn’t realize I was holding you.” He smiled as he let her go. “I must confess I don’t own a plow nor a chair, nor even a spinning-wheel. I have only—” he hesitated a fraction of a second, and ended—“merchandise.”
Judith looked down, abashed at having spoken so rudely, though she wondered why he had answered evasively instead of saying flax or whiskey or whatever it was. He was speaking again with an enticing eagerness.
“I simply don’t dare leave my boat. But I’ve been so lonely on this everlasting river—why don’t you stay and have supper with me?” He caught her hands, drawing her toward the fire. “Yes, you must stay.”
“But I can’t!” She stopped halfway. “What on earth would I tell my father?”
“Tell him—” Philip chuckled. “Tell him I offered you cakes made with honey and rice-meal, and oranges soaked in syrup of cinnamon, and dried figs from the gullah coast—”
Judith found herself sitting on the knotted root of the tree. “The gullah coast—where in the world is that?”
“It’s the lower edge of South Carolina.”
“Is that where you came from?”
He nodded, stretching on the grass at her feet and raising himself on an elbow to ask:
“And you? New England?”
“Why yes. Connecticut. How did you know?”
Instead of answering, he said, “Did anybody ever tell you your eyes were the color of champagne?”
Judith felt herself blushing. “Certainly not. What is champagne?”
“It’s a sparkly wine they make in France.”
“Have you been to France?” she asked in astonishment.
“Yes. Don’t they ever drink champagne in Connecticut?”
“I don’t know. Not up our way, anyhow. You’ve never been to Connecticut?”
“Once, for a very little while. During the French and Indian War.”
“Oh, you were in the war?” she exclaimed gratefully, glad he was a soldier of the king. Now maybe her father would think better of him, for Mark had also been in the war.
“Most assuredly,” returned Philip, “under General Braddock and young Mr. Washington of Virginia.” There was a trickle of laughter under his voice.
“Then you are coming down with a royal grant?” she asked, delighted to discover he was a responsible citizen and not as her father thought an elegant ne’er-do-well.
He laughed aloud. “Surely. Want to see it?”
From inside his frilled shirt he drew a great document with a seal, informing all who cared to know that His Majesty George the Third had bestowed upon his subject Philip Larne, as reward for his service in the colonial war against the French, three thousand acres on the east bank of the Mississippi River in the country of Louisiana, in the sub-province West Florida that had been ceded to England by the treaty that ended the war. Done by the king’s emissaries in the town of Charleston in the colony of South Carolina January 12 in the year of grace 1772.
She gave the paper back, saying, “Yes, my father has one of these. Father waited till long after the war before asking for it. He didn’t want to leave New England.”
Philip sat up, wrapping his arms about his knees. “I wonder he left at all. He doesn’t look like the footloose sort.”
“He isn’t. Not a bit. But our crops failed three times, and there was such bitter cold last year half our cows died. And everybody was talking about this new English settlement in Louisiana. Men who hadn’t been in the war told father they envied him his chance to get free land here. And he got a letter from a young man who left our township five years ago with a royal grant—Mr. Walter Purcell. Mr. Purcell said Louisiana was such a fertile country that from its best land a man could get four crops a year.”
“Do you think you’re going to like it?” Philip asked smiling.
“I—guess so,” she said doubtfully, looking around at the forest and the lazy river purpling in the twilight. “But it’s so strange. Weird, don’t you think, with the palms and the moss like curtains on the trees, and so flat. Maybe it doesn’t seem so strange to you,” she added shyly. “You’re a traveled man. But I—well, I’d never been out of our township till we left for good last winter.”
“And you thought the whole world looked like New England?” Philip asked gently.
“I don’t rightly know what I thought. Only now I know better. I feel—”
“What?” he asked when she hesitated.
“Ever so much older than before I left. Didn’t you feel that way when you went to France?”
Philip chuckled softly, and she started in surprise at herself, talking so confidentially to a stranger. But he had seemed so interested. Philip knelt in front of her, putting his hands on hers.
“You’re the most delectable child I ever saw in my life. But you aren’t really a child, are you?”
“I’m fifteen. Father always calls me a child.”
“But you aren’t, you know. You’re a very beguiling young lady.”
She caught her breath, and Philip asked,
“Didn’t any other man ever tell you that?”
Judith looked down at his hands covering hers in her lap. It had abruptly grown so dark she could hardly see them.
“You’re going to think I’m a dreadful yokel,” she said. “But I’ve never been alone with a young gentleman before in my life.”
“Heavens above,” said Philip in a low voice.
“And I’m sure my father is coming to get me almost any minute,” said Judith, “and I think I’d better go—”
There was a yelp from the forest.
It was short and horrible. Judith sprang up with a cry as Philip grabbed his gun. The boatmen dropped the pots and snatched their own guns, rushing toward the forest, where she saw two eyes staring at her from the gloom under the trees. They were greenish eyes gleaming like a cat’s, only much larger, and they shone out of the dark as though they belonged to a bodiless spirit. She heard a shot and then another, and the eyes vanished as she felt Philip’s arm around her shoulders and heard him say: