Foundation Stone

Foundation Stone

by Lella Warren

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Using the history of Alabama and the stories of her pioneering ancestors, Lella Warren created the Whetstone clan who settled Alabama in the 1820s, helped lead it into the prosperity of the 1850s, and fought for it in the War Between the States.

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Using the history of Alabama and the stories of her pioneering ancestors, Lella Warren created the Whetstone clan who settled Alabama in the 1820s, helped lead it into the prosperity of the 1850s, and fought for it in the War Between the States.

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" the story of the making of a land and a people." —Kirkus Reviews

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University of Alabama Press
Publication date:
Library Alabama Classics Series
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.24(h) x 1.39(d)

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Foundation Stone

By Lella Warren

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 1986 University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-0288-7


William Whetstone hollered: "You, Bonapartt! You, Patt! One of you rapscallions fetch me my toddy." Then he settled himself into his porch chair on this summer day in South Carolina in the year 1823. Patt came a-running with a palm-leaf. Bonapartt, a grand piece of ebony, fetched the toddy, then departed after the first snort of approval. Patt stayed to fan the flies away from his master.

By the second swallow old William was hard at his noonday occupation of fretting over his slave-ridden plantations. Smart men, who could figure on paper, had it that there were more than a million blacks in the upper part of the South, with their number being doubled every twenty years. Some gainful toil had to be found for them. Cotton was the answer. But cotton, dammit, needed new land. Maybe this land, like himself, was failing. That thought riled him, and to gainsay his feebleness he snapped: "Here you, Patt, hand over that fan! You draw flies. Git!"

The brown boy skedaddled, chuckling. Whetstone went on mulling his troubles. New land? What would Yarbrough think of this matter of a migration to the South-west? Yarbrough was his favourite of all his eight living sons, though William did not approve of his being still unwed and without issue at the age of thirty. Still, Yarbrough would not mismanage his life, you could depend on that. He was as smart as they came, and no milksop to be scared of a risk. He'd ask Yarbrough's opinion when he came up to dinner.

At that very moment Yarbrough was down in the plantation office by the big gate, knocking his knuckles against the bottom of a column of figures in a day-book, pondering the same question of great plantations and numerous blacks that were not paying their way. The office was a mere frame box, scorching hot in spite of the grey flow of shadow washed across the floor by the trees outside. It was furnished with a few spraddle-legged chairs, a high desk with ledgers, and oddments such as a discarded top cape and some treasured dusty samples of Sea Island cotton.

The man Yarbrough was proportioned to a race at its zenith, although for the moment he was too obscured by brooding to display his points. To-day his stewardship of his father's properties oppressed him.

"Old worn-out land," he mused, "what can I do about it?" He picked up one of the bolls of cotton and fondled it. "Cotton? But I've tried that here, and the crops were all sorry. Now they tell it that in the South-west — in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi — the cotton springs up like weeds. Even the Indians grow it! If we went down there — –" He smothered a chuckle at the thought of the roar of anger his father would most likely let out should he speak of galloping off to Alabama.

Slamming the ledger shut, he went outside. There he reared his shoulders back, achieving his own high stature again, while slips of sunshine coming through the leaves showed up the gleam customary to his coin-graven features.

From where he stood he surveyed the family home place.

There was the big gate giving entry from the highway, so long left wide open that it had rusted on its hinges and could no longer be closed. Right at hand was the shabby office where efforts and property were tallied against the profits. Beyond, after the drive had shirred away to one side, was a maze of yew and boxwood hedges coated in late-summer dust and broken by the bright pattern of his mother's rose-walks. Distant above it all tilted the house, tall and bluish white, somewhat askew because of ill-placed iron grille-work balconies. Yet it appeared beautiful to him, even as it teetered among its scrambled vines.

A homesickness swept through him at the bare idea of forsaking this place. Why, this land of theirs need never grow sterile! He could replenish it from his own abundant strength. He began advancing towards the house as if towards his beloved's bower. Upon reaching the maze he grasped at a yew branch and throttled it like a woman's wrist. But it gave back none of the resilience of vital flesh and tendon; instead it broke, brittle, scattering that scent of leaves that age in graveyards.

Up in the gallery, out of Yarbrough's sight, his father sloshed the last of his double toddy around in its cup fretfully. Desert these cherished holdings of his? he demanded of himself. No, by the Lord Harry! He, William, had seeded this land and harvested it many times over. Here he would rot if need be, or drop from the vine. ...

So fuming, he drank a swig too much for noonday, and died, purple in the face, a palm-leaf in his hand. As good a way as any, facing out over his own broad acres.


While that was happening in a grille-trimmed gallery in South Carolina, in upper New York State in a Dutch kitchen a young girl was teasing a mulatto servant to be allowed to scrape a cake bowl. All ignorant of how profoundly her life was to be changed by that planter's death, Gerda van Ifort was tickling yellow Pokey in the ribs to win her way. Finally seizing the spoon, she began licking the spicy batter. "Ul-lmn, go-od!"

"You'se gettin' too old fo' such tricks," reproved Pokey. "Turnin' thirteen is plenty time you was a young lady."

"Ll-um," the girl continued her lapping.

Gerda was the orphan granddaughter of Pieter van Ifort, a man of varied activities. Whenever he went down to the city of New York he visited with the Pauldings, the Irvings, and other men of letters of the day. At one time he had been a professor of sciences at old King's College, until his bluntness about the Deity had ended his tenure. In any case he was not cut out for anything so serene as a scholar, although he was a man far in advance of his times in the new fields of physics and physiology. Essentially he was a great blunderbuss of a man, Dutch- shrewd, and unhindered in his honesty towards living.

His only child, a son, had married a girl from the South, one Elzivir, a foster-daughter but no blood kin to William Whetstone. Upon marriage she had come north accompanied by her handmaiden, Pokey; upon the birth of Gerda she had died, apparently severing the thread connecting the two families, especially as her husband did not survive her by a month. Thus old Pieter, with Pokey's help, had been left to rear the child as best he could.

Pokey had not been one of the Whetstone Home Place Negroes; still, having been swapped to William by a Louisiana sugar-planter, she was versed in the intricate New Orleans etiquette of waiting on ladies. She could read and write a trifle, and her speech when she took the trouble came quite close to that of the whites. Yet she wore violet and yellow bandannas such as no house negro would assume, and occasionally used a string of curses common to the canebrakes. Then, queer cross-breed that she was, at other times she shouted frankly Anglo-Saxon ditties above the clatter of her pans, with such lines as:

His beard was red,
But his chest hair black,
When he u-umped a wench,
Tra-la-la-da smack.

Undoubtedly she had lapsed into an awful slattern up here with no mistress to make her toe the mark. Still, she bragged that she had never had any lice on her in all her born days. She had spells also of trying to raise Gerda as befitted a lady, scolding: "You ought to keep yo' muslins and ribbons in a chest with powder of orris root to give them a flucey smell. An' if you don' commence to be laced in, yo' figger'll run to belly."

Gerda, who was as tough as a grapevine, only shrugged and replied:

"Before you talk so persnickety you'd better attend to ironing my pantalets, instead of leaving them rough-dried. A fine lady I make, scratching in public."

Usually, however, Pokey left Gerda comparatively free of the namby-pamby restrictions imposed upon girls in the 1820's. Also Pokey was a good companion. To-day, for instance, as soon as the cake-baking was finished she had packed up a snack and gone with Gerda back over to her favourite haunt by Mountain Lake.

This lake was no tiny patch of baby blue like a toy looking-glass in the doll villages of the feast of Saint Nicholas. It was a gigantic stretch of arrogant indigo for which the vast sweep of mountains made a suitable frame. There was no smooth beach approach, only a very little coarse pebbly sand that had been grated off the huge boulders at the water's edge. Gerda skipped small stones across the water for a while to test her aim and the flex of her wrist. After that there was the swimming.

The water was cold and pellucid and sweet. Gerda swam in it naked, at which Pokey was scandalized. "S'posin' somebody pass by an' see yo' shame?"

"Pother! A body unknown in the water feels no shame."

The water slipped over her so smoothly that Gerda could feel her body expanding until it took up all the room inside of her, clear to the outside curves. "Pokey," she cried, "the water makes your body fit your skin, instead of being just an up-and-down little string at the centre like the wick of a candle. You ought to come on in too."

"Hush! You know I wouldn' go in washin' befo' nobody."

After her bathe Gerda lay on a big rock and let the sun and air dry her. She stretched on her back, her eyes drowning upwards into the sky. Suddenly she was seized with an impulsive assumption of power. The bigness of the lake and her body beside it wrapped in air, gave her a feeling of triumph over all creation. She thrust her arms into space like spears, and shouted: "Pokey, that's the sky they're sticking into, my hands. The sky!"

Pokey cackled gleefully: "I declare, you put me in mind of that tale that goes: Then the Lawd A'mighty leaned back on his yaller throne an' sez: 'Help yo'self to a nice-size kingdom and plenty of victuals, Sistah. An' help yo'self to a good big piece of high groun' to stomp an' holler on. Kase I'se the Lawd of this heah earth. An' you, Sistah God, is my fav'rit chile.' Yes'm, you acks jes' like that high-steppin' critter. Like Sistah God ownin' the earth."

Well, exulted Gerda, so she did feel like Sister God! Ruling a realm on high right this moment. Then abruptly she turned mortal again. She sat up on her rock, yawning so widely that she all but cracked her jaw-bone. "I'm hungry. My stomach is as hollow as your old gourd dipper."

Pokey began unwrapping their snack.

In such hit-or-miss fashion did Gerda live until she was thirteen, with Pokey for both duenna and servant, and Gran, as she called old Pieter, for guardian. Still a rambunctious child when it came to romping, she was yet full-developed: deep of bosom, high-coloured, vivid-eyed, a maid being swiftly prepared for womanhood. On that day though, as she munched on one tea cake after another, she had no way of knowing how soon she was to be done with this first burgeoning.


In the name of God Amen —
I William Whetstone of Egton District and the
State of South Carolina being in perfect helthe,
since & Memory do Constitute and Ordaine this
to be my last will and testament.
Signed this 4th day of April 1823

Thus read Squire Dakin, causing William Whetstone, now under the sod, to be once more present full force in the Long Room of his home. Unable to sign his name, he had yet been able to make his word law even after death. Descendant of a Cavalier who had come to America to escape the rule of Cromwell, he had ever the Cavalier attitude towards book learning. His royalist forebears had left poesy to the hired bards and delegated letters to the clergy, though for a while they had sent sons back to the England of the second Charles to sharpen their sword-play and smooth their manners. While there, some of them had picked up the trick of courtier verse, which was a pretty thing and pleased the ladies.

Since then, however, there had been a change of kings in England and a war for independence from all kings in America, so that practice had disappeared. His own sons had been lucky to con their lessons under Squire Dakin, while he himself had been too taken up with crops to scribble with a quill. He had simply ordered the squire to set down his wishes, hard and fast, as his family would hear.

They had put on the look of sanctimony usually kept for prayers, but with strain beneath the sanctimony.

His married sons and older daughters, having been amply provided for long since, were now ticked off with tokens such as fine gaming pieces and feather beds plumper than clouds.

His widow he treated with both generosity and the gallant scepticism due the woman of his own marital choice. I Lend unto my beloved wife Lisbeth, in during her widowhood her cooke ... her four skilled wenches ... my neat stock of animals and fowls except as herein otherwise disposed. ... Also the use of my Home Place and household furtherture [furniture]. And after her dicease or Marriage to be equally divided between my two children Yarbrough & Lucey.

"Jealous-hided tartar, how he does go on!" murmured Miz Lisbeth, glancing down at her twittery old hands. The fingers were worn to wisps from being bleached to show off before company, after having been stained brown peeling fruit for the preserve kettles. "Now, pray tell, who'd ever look at me?"

"Many a one!" declared Yarbrough, crumpling one of those tuckered hands.

"Pooh, old things that can't chew clabber," said Miz Lisbeth disdainfully. "No, thank you! You'll have to see after me now, son."

"You know," he promised.

Next they heard how William had cut off his lazy black sheep Ruthven, or Ven as he was called, grandly with five shillings instead of the proverbial one shilling, and, one body servant Cudge, withoute whose help it is my opinion that Ruthven would not stir out of bed till Kingdom Come. Ven guffawed at that belittling, dribbling tobacco juice down his finely tucked shirt bosom. His sister Lucey attempted to wither him with one immaculate look, but he was gloating at his father's further charge that he be provided with proper sustance such like as he has in my lifetime enjoyed.

"Egad!" crowed Ven. "Now my throat won't parch."

"One bottle a day," retorted Lucey, "is a gracious plenty for you, sir."

"I've been a two-bottle man for more'n twenty years, and you'll make no ninny out of me now neither."

Lucey was no longer attending him, for she was being read out her own portion. To my daughter Lucey who doth reside at the Home Place & is wedded to one Guy Hampley I leave the Cargill lands, 4 hands able, two negroe wenches, her tire-maiden and 12 fine geese for down plucking.

To her foppish husband Guy an order for two new sets of pantaloons, hopeing to make him more a man. To her son Willy even if he do be taking after his father, 100 acres of the Chinquapin lands 3 helthy hands, the mare Netty he rides, and fifty £ sterling from my English funds to be expended on further schooling. To Lucey'sdaughter all the doll poppetts 5-£ can buy, 2 new frocks, her present fetch-it gel, a portion of sugar lumps. ... Also half-share inheritance of her mother's holdings if she cease sucking on her thumb before the age of ten, she being now 8.

Momentarily Lucey was overlooking the slighting phrases while preening over the numerous benefactions bestowed upon herself and family. Then suddenly her fan-tail collapsed, bedraggling her pride, as she heard the next bequest.

To the heir of my beloved dead foster-daughter Elvizir van Ifort, I do leave the Frederick plantation entire, six hands, two wenches, stock sound in limb to be chosen by Yarbrough, and one featherbed. For now do I greatly regret that I never saw to Elvizir's welfare after she journeyed northerly. So do I hope her heir prospers in the enjoyment of the land I do bequeathe.

The entire group sat in silence for a space, realizing how old William had been bound to acknowledge all claims of all dependents as did most landed men of the South, even if the claim was slight and the burden heavy. Yet a number of them did not blame Lucey for resenting so handsome a bestowal upon an unknown child, that might otherwise have fallen to her children.

However, Squire Dakin's voice continued, and the bodies of all the listeners stiffened to hear what had been left to the real heir, Yarbrough.

To him was left the residue, including the choice plantations near the highway, the bulk of the stock, numerous hands, my Mill stones that I have now ready cutt, my blacksmith tools, all the craft-trained negroes, also my two best house servants named Patt & Bonapartt, and the Grits mill — To him and his wife when he takes one — to them and their heirs Forever.


Excerpted from Foundation Stone by Lella Warren. Copyright © 1986 University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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