The Deliverance; a Romance of the Virginia Tobacco Fields

Contents:
Author: Ellen Anderson Gholson Glasgow

Chapter I. The Man in the Field

When the Susquehanna stage came to the daily halt beneath the blasted pine at the cross-roads, an elderly man, wearing a flapping frock coat and a soft slouch hat, stepped gingerly over one of the muddy wheels, and threw a doubtful glance across the level tobacco fields, where the young plants were drooping in the June sunshine.

"So this is my way, is it?" he asked, with a jerk of his thumb toward a cloud of blue-and-yellow butterflies drifting over a shining puddle—"five miles as the crow flies, and through a bog?"

For a moment he hung suspended above the encrusted axle, peering with blinking pale-gray eyes over a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles. In his appearance there was the hint of a scholarly intention unfulfilled, and his dress, despite its general carelessness, bespoke a different standard of taste from that of the isolated dwellers in the surrounding fields. A casual observer might have classified him as one of the Virginian landowners impoverished by the war; in reality, he was a successful lawyer in a neighbouring town, who, amid the overthrow of the slaveholding gentry some twenty years before, had risen into a provincial prominence.

His humour met with a slow response from the driver, who sat playfully flicking at a horsefly on the flank of a tall, raw-boned sorrel. "Wall, thar’s been a sight of rain lately," he observed, with goodnatured acquiescence, "but I don’t reckon the mud’s more’n waist deep, an’ if you do happen to git clean down, thar’s Sol Peterkin along to pull you out. Whar’re you hidin’, Sol? Why, bless my boots, if he ain’t gone fast asleep!"

At this a lean and high-featured matron, encased in the rigidity of her Sunday bombazine, gave a prim poke with her umbrella in the ribs of a sparrow-like little man, with a discoloured, scraggy beard, who nodded in one corner of the long seat.

"I’d wake up if I was you," she remarked in the voice her sex assumes when virtue lapses into severity.

Starting from his doze, the little man straightened his wiry, sunburned neck and mechanically raised his hand to wipe away a thin stream of tobacco juice which trickled from his half-open mouth.

"Hi!we ain’t got here a’ready!" he exclaimed, as he spat energetically into the mud. "I d’clar if it don’t beat all—one minute we’re thar an’ the next we’re here. It’s a movin’ world we live in, ain’t that so, mum?" Then, as the severe matron still stared unbendingly before her, he descended between the wheels, and stood nervously scraping his feet in the long grass by the roadside.

"This here’s Sol Peterkin, Mr. Carraway," said the driver, bowing his introduction as he leaned forward to disentangle the reins from the sorrel’s tail, "an’ I reckon he kin pint out Blake Hall to you as well as another, seem’ as he was under-overseer thar for eighteen years befo’ the war. Now you’d better climb in agin, folks; it’s time we were off."

He gave an insinuating cluck to the horses, while several passengers, who had alighted to gather blackberries from the ditch, scrambled hurriedly into their places. With a single clanking wrench the stage toiled on, plodding clumsily over the miry road.

As the spattering mud-drops fell round him, Carraway lifted his head and sniffed the air like a pointer that has been just turned afield. For the moment his professional errand escaped him as his chest expanded in the light wind which blew over the radiant stillness of the Virginian June. From the cloudless sky to its pure reflection in the rain-washed roads there was barely a descending shade, and the tufts of dandelion blooming against the rotting rail fence seemed but patches of the clearer sunshine.

"Bless my soul, it’s like a day out of Scripture!" he exclaimed in a tone that was half-apologetic; then raising his walking-stick he leisurely swept it into space. "There’s hardly another crop, I reckon, between here and the Hall?"

Sol Peterkin was busily cutting a fresh quid of tobacco from the plug he carried in his pocket, and there was a brief pause before he answered. Then, as he carefully wiped the blade of his knife on the leg of his blue jean overalls, he looked up with a curious facial contortion.

"Oh, you’ll find a corn field or two somewhar along," he replied, "but it’s a lanky, slipshod kind of crop at best, for tobaccy’s king down here, an’ no mistake. We’ve a sayin’ that the man that ain’t partial to the weed can’t sleep sound even in the churchyard, an’ thar’s some as ’ill swar to this day that Willie Moreen never rested in his grave because he didn’t chaw, an’ the soil smelt jest like a plug. Oh, it’s a great plant, I tell you, suh. Look over thar at them fields; they’ve all been set out sence the spell o’ rain."

The road they followed crawled like a leisurely river between the freshly ploughed ridges, where the earth was slowly settling around the transplanted crop. In the distance, labourers were still at work, passing in dull-blue blotches between the rows of bright-green leaves that hung limply on their slender stalks.

"You’ve lived at the Hall, I hear," said Carraway, suddenly turning to look at his companion over his lowered glasses.

"When it was the Hall, suh," replied Sol, with a tinge of bitterness in his chuckle. "Why, in my day, an’ that was up to the very close of the war, you might stand at the big gate an’ look in any direction you pleased till yo’ eyes bulged fit to bust, but you couldn’t look past the Blake land for all yo’ tryin’. These same fields here we’re passin’ through I’ve seen set out in Blake tobaccy time an’ agin, an’ the farm I live on three miles beyond the Hall belonged to the old gentleman, God bless him! up to the day he died. Lord save my soul! three hunnard as likely niggers as you ever clap sight on, an’ that not countin’ a good fifty that was too far gone to work."

"All scattered now, I suppose?"

"See them little cabins over yonder?" With a dirty forefinger he pointed to the tiny trails of smoke hanging low above the distant tree-tops. "The county’s right speckled with ’em an’ with thar children—all named Blake arter old marster, as they called him, or Corbin arter old miss. When leetle Mr. Christopher got turned out of the Hall jest befo’ his pa died, an’ was shuffled into the house of the overseer, whar Bill Fletcher used to live himself, the darkies all bought bits o’land here an’ thar an’ settled down to do some farmin’ on a free scale. Stuck up, suh! Why, Zebbadee Blake passed me yestiddy drivin’ his own mule-team, an’ I heard him swar he wouldn’t turn out o’ the road for anybody less’n God A’mighty or Marse Christopher!"

"A-ahem!" exclaimed Carraway, with relish; "and in the meantime, the heir to all this high-handed authority is no better than an illiterate day-labourer."

Peterkin snorted. "Who? Mr. Christopher? Well, he warn’t more’n ten years old when his pa went doty an’ died, an’ I don’t reckon he’s had much larnin’ sence. I’ve leant on the gate myself an’ watched the nigger children traipsin’ by to the Yankee woman’s school, an’ he drivin’ the plough when he didn’t reach much higher than the handle. He’ used to be the darndest leetle brat, too, till his sperits got all freezed out o’ him. Lord! Lord! thar’s such a sight of meanness in this here world that it makes a body b’lieve in Providence whether or no."

Carraway meditatively twirled his walking-stick. "Raises tobacco now like the rest, doesn’t he?"

"Not like the rest—bless you, no, suh. Why, the weed thrives under his very touch, though he can’t abide the smell of it, an’ thar’s not a farmer in the county that wouldn’t ruther have him to plant, cut, or cure than any ten men round about. They do say that his pa went clean crazy about tobaccy jest befo’ he died, an’ that Mr. Christopher gets dead sick when he smells it smokin’ in the barn, but he kin pick up a leaf blindfold an’ tell you the quality of it at his first touch."

For a moment the lawyer was silent, pondering a thought he evidently did not care to utter. When at last he spoke it was in the measured tones of one who overcomes an impediment in his speech.

"Do you happen to have heard, I wonder, anything of his attitude toward the present owner of the Hall?"

"Happen to have heard!" Peterkin threw back his head and gasped. "Why, the whole county has happened to hear of it, I reckon. It’s been common talk sence the day he got his first bird-gun, an’ his nigger, Uncle Boaz, found him hidin’ in the bushes to shoot old Fletcher when he came in sight. I tell you, if Bill Fletcher lay dyin’ in the road, Mr. Christopher would sooner ride right over him than not. You ask some folks, suh, an’ they’ll tell you a Blake kin hate twice as long as most men kin love."

"Ah, is it so bad as that?" muttered Carraway.

"Well, he ain’t much of a Christian, as the lights go," continued Sol, "but I ain’t sartain, accordin’ to my way of thinkin’, that he ain’t got a better showin’ on his side than a good many of ’em that gits that befo’ the preacher. He’s a Blake, skin an’ bone, anyhow, an’ you ain’t goin’ to git this here county to go agin him—not if he was to turn an’ spit at Satan himself. Old Bill Fletcher stole his house an’ his land an’ his money, law or no law—that’s how I look at it—but he couldn’t steal his name, an’ that’s what counts among the niggers, an’ the po’ whites, too. Why, I’ve seen a whole parcel o’ darkies stand stock still when Fletcher drove up to the bars with his spankin’ pair of bays, an’ then mos’ break tha’ necks lettin’ ’em down as soon as Mr. Christopher comes along with his team of oxen. You kin fool the quality ’bout the quality, but I’ll be blamed if you kin fool the niggers."

Ahead of them there was a scattered group of log cabins, surrounded by little whitewashed palings, and at their approach a decrepit old Negro, followed by a slinking black-and-tan foxhound, came beneath the straggling hopvine over one of the doors and through the open gate out into the road. His bent old figure was huddled within his carefully patched clothes of coarse brown homespun.

"Howdy, marsters," he muttered, in answer to the lawyer’s greeting, raising a trembling hand to his wrinkled forehead. "Y’all ain’ seen nuttin’ er ole miss’s yaller cat, Beulah, I reckon?"

Peterkin, who had eyed him with the peculiar disfavour felt for the black man by the low-born white, evinced a sudden interest out of all proportion to Carraway’s conception of the loss.

"Ain’t she done come back yet, Uncle Boaz?" he inquired.

"Naw, suh, dat she ain’, en ole miss she ain’ gwine git a wink er sleep dis blessed night. Me en Spy we is done been traipsin’ roun’ atter dat ar low-lifeted Beulah sence befo’ de dinner-bell."

"When did you miss her first?" asked Peterkin, with concern.

"I dunno, suh, dat I don’t, caze she ain’ no better’n one er dese yer wish-wishys,* an’ I ain’ mek out yit ef’n twuz her er her hant. Las’ night ’bout sundown dar she wuz a-lappin’ her sasser er milk right at ole miss feet, en dis mawnin’ at sunup dar she warn’t. Dat’s all I know, suh, ef’n you lay me out."

* Will-o’-the-wisp.

"Well, I reckon she’ll turn up agin," said Peterkin consolingly. "Cats air jest like gals, anyway—they ain’t never happy unless they’re eternally gallyvantin’. Why, that big white Tom of mine knows more about this here county than I do myself."

"Days so, suh; days de gospel trufe; but I’se kinder flustered ’bout dat yaller cat caze ole miss sutney do set a heap er sto’ by ’er. She ain’ never let de dawgs come in de ’oom, nohow, caze once she done feel Beulah rar ’er back at Spy. She’s des stone blin’, is ole miss, but I d’clar she kin smell pow’ful keen, an’ ’taro’ no use tryin’ ter fool her wid one houn’ er de hull pack. Lawd! Lawd! I wunner ef dat ar cat kin be layin’ close over yonder at Sis Daphne’s?"

He branched off into a little path which ran like a white thread across the field, grumbling querulously to the black-and-tan foxhound that ambled at his heels.

"Dar’s a wallopin’ ahaid er you, sho’s you bo’n," he muttered, as he limped on toward a small log hut from which floated an inviting fragrance of bacon frying in fat. "I reckon you lay dat you kin cut yo’ mulatter capers wid me all you please, but you’d better look out sharp ’fo’ you begin foolin’ ’long er Marse Christopher. Dar you go agin, now. Ain’ dat des like you? Wat you wanter go sickin’ atter dat ole hyar fer, anyhow?"

"So that is one of young Blake’s hangers-on?" observed Carraway, with a slight inflection of inquiry.

"Uncle Boaz, you mean? Oh, he was the old gentleman’s body-servant befo’ the war. He used to wear his marster’s cast-off ruffles an’ high hat. A mighty likely nigger he was, too, till he got all bent up with the rheumatics."

The lawyer had lifted his walking-stick and was pointing straight ahead to a group of old brick chimneys huddled in the sunset above a grove of giant oaks.

"That must be Blake Hall over there," he said; "there’s not another house like it in the three counties."

"We’ll be at the big gate in a minute, suh," Peterkin returned. "This is the first view of the Hall you git, an’ they say the old gentleman used to raise his hat whenever he passed by it." Then as they swung open the great iron gate, with its new coat of red, he touched Carraway’s sleeve and spoke in a hoarse whisper. "Thar’s Mr. Christopher himself over yonder," he said, "an’ Lord bless my soul, if he ain’t settin’ out old Fletcher’s plants. Thar! he’s standin’ up now—the big young fellow with the basket. The old gentleman was the biggest man twixt here an’ Fredericksburg, but I d’clar Mr. Christopher is a good half-head taller!"

At his words Carraway stopped short in the road, raising his useless glasses upon his brow. The sun had just gone down in a blaze of light, and the great bare field was slowly darkening against the west.

Nearer at hand there were the long road, already in twilight, the rail fence wrapped in creepers, and a solitary chestnut tree in full bloom. Farther away swept the freshly ploughed ground over which passed the moving figures of the labourers transplanting the young crop. Of them all, Carraway saw but a single worker—in reality, only one among the daily toilers in the field, moulded physically perhaps in a finer shape than they, and limned in the lawyer’s mental vision against a century of the brilliant if tragic history of his race. As he moved slowly along between the even rows, dropping from time to time a plant into one of the small holes dug before him, and pausing with the basket on his arm to settle the earth carefully with his foot, he seemed, indeed, as much the product of the soil upon which he stood as did the great white chestnut growing beside the road. In his pose, in his walk, in the careless carriage of his head, there was something of the large freedom of the elements.

"A dangerous young giant," observed the lawyer slowly, letting his glasses fall before his eyes. "A monumental Blake, as it were. Well, as I have remarked before upon occasions, blood will tell, even at the dregs."

"He’s the very spit of his pa, that’s so," replied Peterkin, "an’ though it’s no business of mine, I’m afeared he’s got the old gentleman’s dry throat along with it. Lord! Lord! I’ve always stood it out that it’s better to water yo’ mouth with tobaccy than to burn it up with sperits." He checked himself and fell back hastily, for young Blake, after a single glance at the west, had tossed his basket carelessly aside, and was striding vigorously across the field.

"Not another plant will I set out, and that’s an end of it!" he was saying angrily. "I agreed to do a day’s work and I’ve been at it steadily since sunrise. Is it any concern of mine, I’d like to know, if he can’t put in his crop to-night? Do you think I care whether his tobacco rots in the ground or out of it?"

As he came on, Carraway measured him coolly, with an appreciation tempered by his native sense of humour. He perceived at once a certain coarseness of finish which, despite the deep-rooted veneration for an idle ancestry, is found most often in the descendants of a long line of generous livers. A moment later he weighed the keen gray flash of the eyes beneath the thick fair hair, the coating of dust and sweat over the high-bred curve from brow to nose, and the fullness of the jaw which bore with a suggestion of sheer brutality upon the general impression of a fine racial type. Taken from the mouth up, the face might have passed as a pure, fleshly copy of the antique idea; seen downward, it became almost repelling in its massive power.

Stooping beside the fence for a common harvest hat, the young man placed it on his head, and gave a careless nod to Peterkin. He had thrown one leg over the rails, and was about to swing himself into the road, when Sol spoke a little timidly.

"I hear yo’ ma’s done lost her yaller cat, Mr. Christopher."

For an instant Christopher hung midway of the fence.

"Isn’t the beast back yet?" he asked irritably, scraping the mud from his boot upon the rail. "I’ve had Uncle Boaz scouring the county half the day."

A pack of hounds that had been sleeping under the sassafras bushes across the road came fawning to his feet, and he pushed them impatiently aside.

"I was thinkin’," began Peterkin, with an uncertain cough, "that I might manage to send over my big white Tom, an’, bein’ blind, maybe she wouldn’t know the difference."

Christopher shook his head.

"Oh, it’s no use," he replied, speaking with an air of superiority. "She could pick out that cat among a million, I believe, with a single touch. Well, there’s no help for it. Down, Spot—down, I say, Sir!"

With a leisurely movement he swung himself from the fence, stopping to wipe his brow with his blue cotton sleeve. Then he went whistling defiantly down the way to the Hall, turning at last into a sunken road that trailed by an abandoned ice-pond where bullfrogs were croaking hoarsely in the rushes.

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Chicago: Ellen Anderson Gholson Glasgow, "Chapter I. The Man in the Field," The Deliverance; a Romance of the Virginia Tobacco Fields, ed. Davis, Charles Belmont, 1866-1926 in The Deliverance; a Romance of the Virginia Tobacco Fields (New York: George E. Wood, 1904), Original Sources, accessed February 26, 2020, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=RDLWGZJ6FMSKNJQ.

MLA: Glasgow, Ellen Anderson Gholson. "Chapter I. The Man in the Field." The Deliverance; a Romance of the Virginia Tobacco Fields, edited by Davis, Charles Belmont, 1866-1926, in The Deliverance; a Romance of the Virginia Tobacco Fields, Vol. 22, New York, George E. Wood, 1904, Original Sources. 26 Feb. 2020. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=RDLWGZJ6FMSKNJQ.

Harvard: Glasgow, EA, 'Chapter I. The Man in the Field' in The Deliverance; a Romance of the Virginia Tobacco Fields, ed. . cited in 1904, The Deliverance; a Romance of the Virginia Tobacco Fields, George E. Wood, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 26 February 2020, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=RDLWGZJ6FMSKNJQ.