Authors: Gwen Bristow
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #Romance, #General, #Sagas
“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
eaning against a pile of cottonbales, Corrie May Upjohn watched the boats. Corrie May always enjoyed the wharfs. Roustabouts heaving cotton and passengers coming down the gangplanks of the floating palaces gave her more excitement than even a show in a playhouse. She was waiting for her beau, and she was glad he had told her to meet him here.
Corrie May was fourteen. She had a slim young figure and high-arched feet that hadn’t lost their shape even if she did have to go barefooted except in the winter time, and her blue gingham dress matched her eyes and made a pleasant contrast with her yellow hair and the sunburnt ruddiness of her skin. Her lips were full, though they met each other in a straight line, forming a kissable but very determined mouth. This beau of hers, Budge Foster, was not the only young fellow who had made eyes at her. Corrie May liked Budge best, but she intended flirting around awhile so he could see she wasn’t taking the only chance she could get.
A wind from the river stroked her face. Corrie May took a deep breath. She loved the river. From the wharf it was like watching the whole world at once—fine steamboats curtseying like great ladies as they docked, sassy little plantation boats bobbing along the current and getting in everybody’s way, great steamers with foreign flags that came up the river for cotton, slave-boats from which Negroes were led in long lines to the market above the wharf, floating bawdy-houses that moved jauntily from town to town as pious folk got after them, showboats with big beflowered banners, shanty-boats of peddlers who wandered up and down selling needles and calico, houseboats of medicine men proclaiming wonderful remedies, ice-boats from up North, loaded with ice cut last winter from the frozen streams and brought down in summer to be sold to the rich households of Louisiana at twenty-five cents a pound. Corrie May had never traveled anywhere, but folks said you did not need to travel if you lived in a river town, for the world came to your door.
She felt secretly proud of the fact that though she was only fourteen she could already stand on the wharfs waiting for a beau. Budge had gone to pay his rent to the St. Clairs, the mighty landowning family from whom he rented the piece of ground he was working. He was a fine fellow, that Budge, setting out to raise himself some cotton and be independent in the world instead of living on uncertain wharf-jobs like Corrie May’s brothers. And he was mighty fond of her. Not that he’d said anything right out, but she could tell. Budge couldn’t be expected to say anything yet. That cabin he was putting up wasn’t finished, and while he was building it he stayed on with his folks in Rattletrap Square, down below the wharfs. Budge wasn’t one to be asking a girl to marry him before he had a house for her to live in.
It would be easier being married than staying around home. Her brothers were good fellows, hard-working when there was any work to be had, but now in the depth of summer when things were slow they had a hard time finding jobs, and pa, of course, he never did anything but talk. In the winter pa got on a houseboat with some other traveling preachers and they went up and down the river saving souls, and there wasn’t a parson on the river could beat old man Upjohn when it came to sermons with rolling lines about Babylon and Sodom and hellfire and great white thrones, but in the summer time old man Upjohn didn’t do anything, just sat on the stoop talking politics and religion and all like that. And while it was fine to preach, that didn’t put victuals into anybody’s belly. Corrie May was glad her brothers worked for their living and left heaven and hell to pa.
She looked around for Budge, but he wasn’t in sight yet. At the land-office the men had to line up and wait their turns to pay the rent, and sometimes a fellow had to stand there an hour or more. The sun was getting hot. Corrie May thought of the park overlooking the river, where ladies took the air on pleasant afternoons. It would be cool in there. Crossing the wharf, she went through the gateway of the park and walked over to the little lake. She sat down on the grass in the shade of a magnolia tree, watching the swans gliding about the water.
It was drowsily quiet here, and the noises of the river sounded as though they came from a long way off. Except for children playing under the trees with their mammies the park was nearly empty. Not many of the great folk seemed to be about. But of course not; this was July, and they would be up North escaping the summer. But even as she remembered this she heard the soft thud of horses’ hoofs and saw a carriage come into the park, and a young lady and gentleman get out. Corrie May recognized them—Mr. Denis Larne, who owned Ardeith Plantation, the richest and loveliest place in Louisiana, folks said; and Miss Ann Sheramy, whose father was the owner of Silverwood, the plantation that joined Ardeith at its north edge. Mr. Denis Larne was tall and slender and looked very fine in a black suit with long trousers buckled by a strap under his instep. He was bowing over Miss Sheramy’s hand with deferential grace. Miss Sheramy looked pretty as a fashion plate in a great hooped dress of muslin, and a pink bonnet with a plume. As they stood there by the Ardeith carriage they made such a picture of elegance that Corrie May smiled with admiration.
Mr. Larne went out of the park toward an office building on the wharf, and with a word to the coachman Miss Sheramy came toward the lake. Corrie May was seized with bashfulness and wondered if she should not move on, but apparently without noticing her Ann Sheramy spread her ruffled skirts on the grass and sat down, idly watching the swans. Corrie May nearly gasped at the sight of anybody’s being so careless of such expensive clothes, but Ann Sheramy seemed to think nothing of them. She pulled off her gloves, and calling to one of the Negro marchandes who wandered about with trays of delectables for children she bought two molasses-cakes. Leaning forward on her knees in a fashion that was almost certain to get grass-stains on her skirt, she began tossing scraps to the swans.
Then, as she became aware of Corrie May’s wide eyes on her, Ann impulsively held out one of her cakes. “Do you want this?” she called.
Corrie May could feel her face lighting with astonished gratitude. She moved nearer. “Why yes ma’am, thank you ma’am.” She began to eat the cake, but stopped uncertainly, holding it with a crescent-shaped bite taken out. “Oh,” she said, “did you mean it was for the birds, ma’am?”
Ann glanced up again, her hand full of crumbs. “Why no, you may eat it yourself,” she returned smiling.
Corrie May had seen her often on the street, shopping or riding horseback, but she had never before been so close to her, and she was trying to decide now if Miss Ann were just naturally lovely or if it were her clothes that made her seem so. No, she was very pretty indeed, with light brown curls escaping from her bonnet, and large dark eyes, and a complexion that had been protected from even a tinge of sunburn. When she smiled a dimple appeared surprisingly under her right eye.
“These molasses-cakes sho is good,” Corrie May said to her appreciatively.
“Are they really? I’ve never eaten one.” Ann tentatively bit into the remnant of her own. “Why, they are,” she agreed in surprise, and turning around she raised her voice. “Marchande! Apporte-nous encore des gateaux.”
Corrie May regarded her with increasing admiration as Ann concluded her purchase and offered another cake. “Thank you ma’am,” said Corrie May. “You sho talks French pretty,” she observed.
“I went to school in France,” Ann said. She was eating with relish. Not a bit stuck-up, Corrie May thought. Though she was a planter’s daughter and had traveled in foreign parts and all, she was really very nice.
“I ain’t never heard nobody talk French but them gumbo niggers like that one,” said Corrie May. She smiled, still shyly. “You’s Miss Ann Sheramy, ain’t you?”
“Yes. What’s your name?”
“Corrie May Upjohn.”
“Do you live here?”
“Oh yes ma’am. I live down in Rattletrap Square. I reckon you ain’t never been there, is you?”
“No, I don’t believe I ever have.” Ann flung the crumbs of her last cake to the swans. What beautiful hands she had, long and white, with polished nails and not a shadow of dust under the edges. Corrie May twisted her bare toes around the grass, taking care not to touch the hem of Ann’s fluttering skirt. “I ain’t disturbing you, Miss Sheramy?”
“Why of course not. I haven’t anything to do here. I’m just waiting for my friend.”
“Mr. Larne’s tending to some business?”
“Yes, he’s arranging to have signs put up advertising for loggers to cut cypress.”
“Loggers?” Corrie May repeated eagerly. “You mean he’s giving out jobs?”
“Well ma’am, I got two brothers that ain’t got no work. You reckon they could get a job in his cypress?”
“Why, I suppose so. I don’t know very much about it—Mr. Larne just told me he was having timber cut in a swamp that belongs to his plantation. But they could apply at his office. It’s the one that says ‘Ardeith’ over the door.”
Corrie May blushed. “They ain’t very good at letters, Miss Sheramy. But I reckon they could find it. I sho do thank you for telling me about it.” She began to get to her feet, and having finished her own cakes she wiped her hands on her skirt. “I better be going. The boys is somewhere out on the wharfs, and I’ll tell them about the logging job. Thank you ma’am, and thank you for the cakes.”
“You’re quite welcome,” Ann said.
Not knowing what else to do with them, Corrie May scrubbed her hands on her skirt again. With a little curtsey to Ann Sheramy she turned around and ran out of the park. On the wharfs she started looking for her brothers Lemmy and George. If Budge showed up while she was gone he’d just have to wait. Getting work for the boys was important. She was mighty glad she had run into Miss Ann Sheramy.
She found the boys resting on a wheelbarrow in the shade of a pile of sugar hogsheads. Lemmy and George were big strong fellows, fair-haired and tanned like herself. They’d make good workers in a cypress camp. Corrie May told them Mr. Denis Larne was hiring loggers.
Say, that was great, the boys exclaimed. That sort of work would last all summer, at least till the plantations started moving this year’s cotton crop. They hitched up their overalls and started looking for the Ardeith office. Corrie May went back to the pile of cottonbales where Budge had told her to meet him. He was waiting.
“I’m sorry I kept you standing,” she apologized politely.
“Don’t matter,” he assured her.
“I was seeing about getting Lemmy and George a job,” she explained. “Cutting cypress.”
“Well, that’s fine,” said Budge. “Fine.”
Corrie May smiled up at him. Budge was a right well set-up fellow and no mistake, big and strong, with a wide ruddy face. His shirt was open at the neck, and as far as she could see, his chest was thick with hairs, the skin under them burnt brickish by the sun. He wasn’t charming and graceful like Denis Larne, but Miss Ann could have that one, Corrie May told herself contentedly; Budge suited her fine.
Their bare feet made tracks in the dust of the wharf as they walked along. Budge grinned at her. “Brought you somp’n,” he said.
“Yeah? What?” she asked eagerly.
From a paper bag he took two confections of pink sugar each wrapped around a stick, and gave her one. “Ah, thanks,” said Corrie May, glad she had not mentioned that Miss Ann Sheramy had given her the cakes. “You sho is sweet to me.”
“Oh, ’tain’t nothing,” Budge answered airily. “Just a little thing one of them nigger women was selling.”
Licking the candy off the sticks, they turned from the wharfs and walked around the Valcour warehouses toward Rattletrap Square. “You done paid your rent?” asked Corrie May.
“Sho,” said Budge. He added, “That’s a right fair little piece of land I got.”
“Sho ’nough?” she asked with interest.
“You mighty right,” said Budge. “Let’s see. This here’s fifty-nine.” He counted on his fingers. “Eighteen-fifty-nine, sixty, sixty-one. By sixty-one I ought to be making out fine, if there ain’t no floods or nothing to gouge me up so I can’t pay the rent.”
“You’s a smart fellow,” said Corrie May.
Budge grinned bashfully. Past the warehouses they descended into Rattletrap Square. It was hard to find your way around Rattletrap Square unless you knew it by heart. The alleys twisted around the saloons and crossed one another till anybody could get dizzy. But Corrie May and Budge had been born there and they walked fast.
“Reckon I better go give ma this here cornmeal she told me to bring,” Budge said as they reached the stoop of his home. “I’ll be over to set awhile before supper.”
“Come on over,” said Corrie May cordially.
She turned toward her own stoop. Even before she reached it she could hear the drone of her father’s voice, and she shrugged with exasperation.
Old man Upjohn was at it again. Sitting on the stoop before his lodgings, he talked and talked, underlining his most emphatic phrases with a spit of tobacco juice neatly shot from the space between his two middle front teeth. His neighbors lounged around, half amused and half agreeing. Not that you’d ever get any place listening to old man Upjohn, but it was cooler here than indoors where the womenfolk were getting up supper, and his complaints, being directed against civilization in general, made easier listening than the women’s individually pointed whinings.
Old man Upjohn made a wide gesture. The wind ruffled his beard and lifted the tatters of his shirt.
“Tell you, fault of organization. Some folks got too much and others ain’t got enough. No justice in this here country. Government sits up there in Washington and don’t do nothing. Ain’t I right, now? Tell me, ain’t I right?”
Mr. Gambrell bit on a banana he had taken from his pocket. “’Spect you is, Upjohn.”
“Sho I’m right. And what do the rich care about? Tell you. Getting richer, that’s what. No heart and no pity. You ride out on the river road and see them people, living in luxury and sin. Ain’t never seed the inside of a Bible. ‘Woe unto you,’ said the Lord, but do they listen? Not them.”
He spat tobacco juice in a smart curve. It landed on top of a decaying cabbage leaf being investigated by an alley cat. She mewed and turned away.