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
For Annette Duchein
he Handsome Road
ends in 1882. In the spring of that year the Mississippi River was higher than it had ever been before, and in many places there were devastating floods like the one young Fred Upjohn saw when his levee broke. But the crash of the levees in 1882 had a good result, for it brought about the beginning of the modern efficient national system of flood control. Fred was not the only boy who made up his mind that year that when he grew up he would find some way to boss that river.
This Side of Glory
begins thirty years later, in 1912, two years before the start of the First World War. Fred Upjohn has become a levee contractor. These levee builders are men who know the river as they know their own homes. They contract with the national government to build the levees and keep them in repair, so the river, when swollen by the melting snows from the North, will not overflow to wreck the fields. (A levee is an artificial embankment built to reinforce the natural bank of the river.)
Protection of the land along the river was becoming more and more important, for in the main this was cotton land, and cotton was vital to the economy of the United States. At the start of the First World War, nearly nine-tenths of the textiles in the world were made of cotton. Cotton was the largest export of this country; and because it was necessary to people everywhere, cotton had more to do with international finance and politics than any other commodity in the world.
In 1882, Denis Larne II was a young man twenty-two years old, Fred Upjohn was fourteen. In the thirty years since then, Denis and Fred have married and had children of their own. Denis’ elder son is Kester Larne, Fred’s daughter is Eleanor Upjohn. At the beginning of
This Side of Glory
Kester is twenty-seven years old and Eleanor twenty-two.
Kester and Eleanor grew up only a few miles apart, but their two childhoods were utterly different. The Larnes, the Sheramys, the other proud families who lost so much in the Civil War, rebuilt their life to be as nearly as possible like the old one. Their ways of thinking and doing, their emotional attitudes, were those they had had before. Kester Larne was born of the marriage between Denis Larne II and Lysiane St. Clair. (Lysiane too was descended from one of the families who came to Louisiana at the same time as Philip Larne. In the first chapter of
you read about Mark Sheramy’s calling a greeting from his flatboat to a family named St. Clair, who were bringing their own flatboat down the river.)
Born of these two gentlefolk, Kester has been bred in the old ways. He is a gentleman of beautiful manners, with reverence for the traditions of his ancestors. Kester also has the strength and gallantry of Philip Larne and the force of Judith Sheramy, everything that made it possible for them to hack their civilization out of the wilderness. But in Kester these traits are sleepy, because they have never had to wake up.
Eleanor is different because everything around her has made her different. Her father was no flower of a great family. Fred Upjohn started off with nothing but strength, but he had plenty of that. He married a girl who had no more to start with than himself, and they made their own way; and like many other such parents they gave their children better chances than they had had. Eleanor Upjohn knows about her father’s struggle and is proud of it. When she notices people like the Larnes—which she seldom does—she feels neither envy nor admiration. What she does feel is an amused contempt. Until she meets Kester.
The strains represented by Eleanor and Kester have been called the New South and the Old. They are different. But they both have strength.
With Eleanor’s type this is the strength of aggressive energy. With Kester’s it is the strength of endurance. Both these qualities have value. But either of them, pushed to its limit, changes from a good into an absurdity. Eleanor’s sort of people, in their eagerness to get things done, will move everything and change everything, forgetting that progress does not always mean progress toward something better. On the other hand, Kester’s strength is the sort that made the defenders of Vicksburg in 1863 eat rats and faint with scurvy and still refuse to surrender, long after they knew the battle was lost.
These types of people exist not only in the American South. You can find them in any place where an old order is changing into a new order, which in our time means just about everywhere. They do not agree—they can’t—but they need each other.
Again, for those who like to follow the lines of descent, here they are. Those who don’t care about ancestors can skip the paragraphs in italics:
Kester and Eleanor are both descendants of Dolores, removed by five generations. Kester is the grandson of Ann Sheramy, who was a great-granddaughter of Dolores; Eleanor is the granddaughter of Corrie May Upjohn, who was also a great-granddaughter of Dolores.
Kester is descended also, through five generations, from Judith and Philip Larne. Here the line of descent has been: Philip, David, Sebastian, Denis I, Denis II, Kester. Through David Larne’s wife, Emily Purcell, Kester is also a descendant of Gervaise and Walter Purcell, of
The Handsome Road
told how the two classes, aristocrats and poor white trash, came into being.
This Side of Glory
tells how Kester and Eleanor, born of these divergent groups, met their conflicts and learned to blend the differences between themselves. Doing this, they could leave a better tradition than had been left to either of them.
he sky was like thick blue velvet, and the river glittered in the sun. The time was January, 1912. Eleanor Upjohn, who was ten years older than the century, sat before her typewriter in the main tent of the levee camp by the river, answering her father’s correspondence. Her father, Fred Upjohn, contractor in charge of the work, was reading and signing the letters while he finished the cigar he smoked after his noon dinner.
Fred and Eleanor were very good friends. They respected each other. Fred had spent thirty years building ramparts to hold the river back from the towns and plantations that bordered it, and when Eleanor came home from college announcing that she had studied stenography in her spare time and wanted to work, Fred welcomed her as his secretary. He had no regard for idleness.
Eleanor could remember him as he had been when she was a little girl, studying in the ring of light made by a kerosene lamp, while her mother, the baby in her arms and the coming baby bulging her apron, urged him to go to bed and at the same time kept bringing coffee to keep him awake. Eleanor was proud of him. From sandbag-toter to the best levee contractor on the Mississippi—not many men could boast such a rise. Today the Upjohns had a home on one of the most beautiful residential streets in New Orleans, and when Fred came upriver to supervise the construction of a levee he lived in spacious comfort.
The very tent they occupied had a look of success. This tent was the main room of the contractor’s quarters, and with its companions formed a dwelling as easily lived in as a house. Its floor was made in tongue-and-groove sections three feet long so they could be taken apart and transported when the men moved camp. The four sides consisted of wooden walls three feet high and screen-wire from there to the top, with canvas sides that could be rolled up in good weather or dropped and buckled to the floor in seasons of rain or cold. The room was furnished with a dining-table, chairs, a bookcase, a wood-burning stove—the pipe of which went through a metal support in the canvas wall—and the desk at which Eleanor was writing. The bedrooms and kitchen were similarly constructed and separated from one another by canvas-covered boardwalks a yard wide. Eleanor liked working with her father in the levee camps. She was a crisp, competent young person and idleness bored her.
Eleanor was not pretty, but she was beautiful as a steel bridge is beautiful, and gave the same impression of strength and economy of line. Built with the structural excellence of an object fit for its purpose, her body was lean and hard, with long thighs, so that when she stood up she was straight as a spear and when she walked she moved directly and without haste. Her features were far from perfect, the nose too long and the jaw too wide, and there was a stubborn line to her mouth, but its very irregularities made it a striking face, with a look of cool and uncompromising honesty; and she had very fine eyes, dark blue with black lashes and clearly arched black eyebrows. Her hair was dark brown, braided to lie above her forehead like a coronet.
Eleanor never laced—not from scorn of the fashions but because she had found it too hard to breathe in a tight corset—but much outdoor exercise had given her a natural trimness and she looked well in her clothes. She was wearing a tailored shirtwaist of dark blue satin, with a white collar high around her throat, and a blue serge skirt that dropped straight to her insteps; but by a characteristic talent she achieved smartness and freedom at once, so the high collar was starched instead of boned, the belt looked tight only because she had no slouchiness about her waistline, and there was a cleverly concealed pleat below her knees that made walking easy without spoiling the hobble-skirt look. The effect was that of a sheath fitting with hardly a wrinkle over a figure too clean-cut to need any decoration.
The brilliance of the day gave a sparkle even to the interior of the tent. Eleanor wanted to go out. She had been working since six that morning, with only a pause for dinner, and she had a typewriter-cramp between her shoulders. There were only three more letters, and she slit them open quickly. A Senator had written reminding Fred of the national conference on waterways President Taft had summoned for next fall. Fred had already promised to attend the President’s conference, so Eleanor dropped the letter into the wastebasket. The next was addressed to herself. Her eyes hastily skimmed the first paragraph. “… to impress upon recent graduates of American colleges for women the importance of supporting woman suffrage … .” That went into the wastebasket too. As she had never had much difficulty in getting what she wanted and did not particularly care whether other people got what they wanted or not, Eleanor had no interest in causes. The last letter required an answer. She rolled a sheet of paper into the typewriter.
“Nearly done?” Fred asked.
She nodded, her fingers snapping out the lines.
“… and unless the work should be seriously impeded by bad weather, we are confident that the new levee will be finished by the first of March. Yours very truly, Fred Upjohn, Contractor in Charge.”
As she typed his name under the space left for his signature Fred put out his cigar and reached for the pen.
“That’s the last,” Eleanor exclaimed, “and I’m dead.”
“You don’t look it,” Fred answered without concern. He worked fourteen hours a day when he was building a levee and saw no reason why anybody else should object to doing the same.
Eleanor made a face at him as she put an envelope into the typewriter and wrote the address. “Mr. Kester Larne, Ardeith Plantation, Dalroy, Louisiana.”
“What’s this an answer to?” Fred inquired.
“Mr. Larne wrote asking when we expected to be finished. He’s just hoping we’ll be gone when he starts planting his cotton.”
“The planters don’t think we’re a good influence on their laborers,” Fred remarked good-humoredly as he wrote his name. “But my men don’t make trouble.”
Eleanor stood up and stretched. “Is all that cotton land over there Ardeith Plantation?”
“An enormous place. Must be two thousand acres.”
“Mortgaged for all it’s worth, I expect,” he commented indifferently.
“Why do you say that?”
Fred grinned as he got to his feet. “They’re that sort, honey, the Larnes. Got ancestors like the plague, too blue-blooded to work or do anything else except drink and chase women and look mournful about the Civil War.”
Eleanor laughed. She had perched herself on the desk with relaxed enjoyment. “Anyway, the government’s giving them a good levee to protect their land.”
“Right.” Fred started for the door. “I guess I’d better be getting back.”
She watched him go out of the tent. He walked with hard, firm strides, like a man who had spent most of his life walking on earth instead of pavements. Here I am, he said with every step, get out of my way. Eleanor smiled as she looked after him. There was nobody else she admired as much as she did her father.
After a moment she slipped off the desk, stretched again, and went into her bedroom-tent for a coat. Throwing it over her arm she climbed the abandoned levee and walked along the crest. The air was almost twinkling; on one side of the levee the black earth was pleading for plows, and on the other side the river was a streak of gold and fire. As she reached a little oak tree that had found a foothold on the old levee Eleanor stopped, leaning back against the trunk to catch her breath and enjoy the dazzle around her.
Below her the river idled past in winter quietness. On the strip of sand between the river and the levee, left uncovered now by the low water, stretched the city of tents where the laborers lived. Three hundred yards ahead of her Eleanor could see the men and the great mule-drawn scoops that were bringing up tons of earth from the borrow-pit and dumping it on the new levee that would replace the one where she stood, which had been battered to uselessness by the high water of many Aprils. Eleanor liked the scene: on one side the quiet fields, on the other the camp, where the pickaninnies played among the tents while their mothers cooked and their fathers worked on the new levee ahead. She knew every look of the river, tawny in the sun and purple at evening and white as magnolias under the moon, shrunken and docile in the fall, wild as a panther in the spring. Born in a camp like this one, she had grown up loving and fearing the river as she might have felt toward a genial monarch who in spite of his kindliness held over his subjects the power of life and death.
From far away she heard a chugging noise. The persistent rhythm of the sound made it clear under the irregular shouts from the workmen. Eleanor turned to look. Along a road for cotton wagons that led through the field came a loud and graceless little automobile, spouting smoke and rattling as it went over the ruts. The car had no top, and as it puffed nearer she could see that there was a hatless man at the wheel, his hair blowing as he drove.
The car groaned to a stop near a scrub pine at the foot of the levee, and without quieting the engine the driver sprang out. She saw that he was young and tall, with hair blown to a froth all over his head. He glanced around, then with a start of evident surprise he caught sight of her. An instant later he was climbing the levee to where she stood.
He looked like a young man who considered the world a delightful place and himself most fortunate to have been born. Nearly a head taller than herself, he was deep-chested and sunburnt, as though he had spent his life outdoors; he would have looked like a Viking except that his hair and eyes were the rich brown of cane syrup fresh from the grinding. His forehead was broad, and his nose faintly arched. He was smiling upon her with admiring deference, the look of the born charmer of women who by habit smiles upon any one of them not positively ugly, as though he is already sure she will like him very much. Usually Eleanor found this sort of approach annoying. But for some reason, with this young man it was rather delightful.
“Please forgive me for intruding,” he said, with a slight inclination from the waist as though he had stepped unannounced into her parlor. His voice was deeper than she had expected it to be.
“You were looking for someone?” Eleanor asked in return. She could not help smiling at him.
“No ma’am,” said the audacious young man, “I wasn’t. I came out to have a look at the fields, and then I saw you.”
Eleanor burst out laughing.
“Do you mind?” he inquired.
“Why should I?” she asked, trying to appear unconscious of his flattering eyes. “The levee belongs to the United States government— as a citizen and taxpayer you have a perfect right to be here.” Though her words were commonplace she was surprised to hear how rich and cordial her voice was, as though it had responded without any conscious direction of her own to his assumption that they were going to be friends.
“Good!” he exclaimed. Eleanor was thinking, such a goose. If he behaves like this toward every girl he sees he can’t have time to do much else. The young man went on, “We probably have a mutual acquaintance who could introduce us properly, but in the meantime my name is Kester Larne.”
“Larne?” repeated Eleanor. “Oh yes, of course! I’ve just written a letter to you.”
“To me?” He looked adorably puzzled. “How could I be so fortunate? If I’d ever seen you before I couldn’t possibly have forgotten you.”
“Don’t be silly,” she retorted, but she was still laughing because she could not help it. “My father is in charge of this work and you wrote him asking how soon we’d be finished. I’m his secretary, so I wrote the answer.”
“Oh.” He nodded.
“You’ll be glad to know,” she continued, “that we hope to be gone by the first of March.” She took a step nearer, sorry for the sudden apology in his face. “Don’t think I take it as a personal affront that you wanted to get rid of us! I know levee Negroes are a tough breed. They don’t get along with cotton Negroes, and I’m not blaming you a bit.”
“What an intelligent girl!” he exclaimed, abruptly radiant. “You’re so right. They don’t get along, and I
hoping the levee would be finished by planting time. But does that mean you’ll go, too?”
He looked disappointed. Then, brightening, he said, “But that’s almost two months, anyway. Won’t you tell me your name?”
“Thanks.” Kester took off his coat and spread it on the grass. “Will you sit down?”
Liking him more than she would have wanted him to guess, Eleanor indicated the coat over her arm. “I have one.”
“Ah, but you must put that on. I wondered when I saw you why you were carrying it. These bright days are deceptive.” Without further argument he took the coat from her and held it ready.
Though she was not used to being so guarded, Eleanor obeyed him. He had an endearing way of making her feel frail, and though she told herself it was absurd she found there was something rather pleasant about it. She sat down on his coat and Kester dispersed his big person on the grass beside her. “It’s damp,” Eleanor warned.
“I never catch cold.” Supporting himself on his elbows, he looked up at her. Eleanor was remembering what her father had said about the Larnes. Kester might chase women—if she was any judge he certainly did—but whatever might be true of him he decidedly did not look moth-eaten. In fact, she thought she had never seen a more magnificent physical specimen. “Eleanor,” he was saying. “Nice name. Do you like it?”
“All right, except when anybody calls me Nellie.”
He gave a low chuckle. “Who would call a girl like you Nellie?”
“Dad, sometimes. He started it when I was a little girl, but it seemed as if every mule in every camp was named Nellie and I got tired being gee’d and whoa’d all day long. I made him quit, but now and then he forgets.”
“I never will. I promise.”
“Do you know,” said Eleanor, “that you’ve left your engine running?”
Without glancing at the car he asked, “Did you ever have to crank one of those things?”
Lazy, she thought. Extravagant. Maybe dad wasn’t so wrong. Aloud she said, “If you don’t like to crank why don’t you drive a buggy?”