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The 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 was 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?"
"Because I like automobiles," said Kester. "And I perceive that you are a very dominating young woman."
"I've been told that I am," she returned, smiling.
"I suppose you've also been told that you're very good-looking?"
"No." Eleanor shook her head rebukingly. "I'll accept as much flattery as most girls, Mr. Larne, but I know about my nose, and my square chin—"
"You must have been around college boys who liked them cute and curly. Didn't anybody ever tell you the difference between—" he paused tantalizingly.
"Well—strawberries and caviar?"
Eleanor glanced down at herself, taken aback, because most of her male acquaintances so far had been college boys, and engineers who respected her because she could solve mathematical equations faster than any of them. Kester was considerably older than a sophomore—twenty-six or seven, she thought—and he probably would not be at all interested in her talent as a lightning calculator. But she put a brake on her thoughts. He didn't mean a word he was saying. No man could please a girl so expertly unless he had had abundant practice in doing it. Kester was giving her a teasing scrutiny.
"You don't believe me, do you?"
"No," she answered, startled.
"It doesn't matter. Let's take a ride."
"A ride? Where?"
"Anywhere. Come on. Please!" He had scrambled to his feet and was eagerly holding out his hands to help her up.
Eleanor's mind answered before her voice. Her mind said: I suspect that I am being deliberately captivated. I believe this young man is inviting me because he simply cannot endure the thought that any reasonably attractive woman could regard him with indifference. If I knew what was good for me I should say no. And I am going to say yes.
She answered: "I'd like to very much, thank you."
"Fine!" He caught her hands and she stood up. Kester had received her answer with delight; she thought she had never seen so sparkling a personality as his. He was about to start down the levee, when with some difficulty at being practical Eleanor put out a detaining hand.
"Your coat," she reminded him.
Chuckling at her prudence and his own forgetfulness, he picked it up and began to put it on. The coat was crumpled from her having sat on it, yet in spite of his casual appearance Kester had an air of elegance, as unconscious and as evident as the color of his eyes. She tried to define it. Probably it was his self-assurance, the way he moved and spoke as though nothing had ever assailed him. The feudal nobles whose effigies lay on their tombs, their legs crossed as the sign they had been on a Crusade, had even in stone this air of lordship.
They scrambled down the levee slope, Kester holding her hand, and got into his car. Eleanor tucked her skirt around her, for the little car was one of the type that had only an opening in the side in place of a door.
"Hold on," advised Kester. "This road was never meant for the horseless age."
Excerpted from This Side of Glory by Gwen Bristow. Copyright © 1968 Gwen Bristow. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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