Set at the turn of the century, The Time of Man tells the moving story of Ellen Chesser, a young woman with a mind of her own. She and her family travel from one small community to another in rural Kentucky, eking out a living as itinerant farmworkers. Initially she feels isolated and lonely, resenting the hardship of her life and longing to be with her childhood friends. Yet slowly she learns what it means to fall in love and forges lasting friendships with other young people at the local dances. She is left stunned, therefore, when the man she is to marry comes to her to confess a dark secret. His past is shameful to him and heartbreaking for her, but Ellen’s independent spirit and strength of character sustain her in the aftermath. When further accusations come to light, they threaten to disturb the tranquility of her life and that of the community where she lives forever. Written in the subtle, soaring prose for which Elizabeth Madox Roberts was known, The Time of Man is a spectacular coming of age story. As she grows older, Ellen Chesser is forced to confront the darker side of human nature but ultimately manages to overcome the difficulties she faces with a resolute dignity.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The Time of Man
By Elizabeth Madox Roberts
Hesperus Press LimitedCopyright © 2013 Hesperus Press Limited
All rights reserved.
Ellen wrote her name in the air with her finger, Ellen Chesser, leaning forward and writing on the horizontal plane. Beside her in the wagon her mother huddled under an old shawl to keep herself from the damp, complaining, 'We ought to be a-goen on.'
'If I had all the money there is in the world,' Ellen said, slowly, 'I'd go along in a big red wagon and I wouldn't care if it taken twenty horses to pull it along. Such a wagon as would never break down.' She wrote her name again in the horizontal of the air.
'Here's a Gipsy wagon broke down!' Some little boys ran up to the blacksmith shop, coming out of the field across the road. 'Oh, Alvin, come on, here's horse-swappers broke down,' one called.
Ellen's father was talking with a farmer, and the boys were staring, while the blacksmith pecked from time to time with his tools, the sounds muffled in the wet air. A voice complained, 'We ought to be a-goen on.'
The farmer said that he would pay three dollars a day for work that week. Henry Chesser stood with one foot on the hub of the wagon, thinking over the offer, drifting, his slow speech a little different from the farmer's slow speech.
'I look for rain again tonight,' the farmer said, 'and tomorrow will be a season. This is likely the last season we'll have, and so, as I say, I'll pay for help and I'll pay right. But the man I hire has got to work. Three dollars a day you can have. You can take it or leave it. As I say you can have three dollars and that-there house over in the place to stay in. It's a good tight house. Leaks a little, hardly to speak of.'
Ellen and her mother sat still on the wagon while Henry decided. Later they drove up the wet road, following the farmer, who rode a sleek horse.
As night came they brought the bedding in from the wagon and prepared to sleep on the floor. Henry tied his two horses to a locust tree off by the creek and these began at once to eat the grass about their feet, biting hurriedly. Ellen was told to lie beside her mother on the quilts, her father lying beyond. The strangeness of the house troubled her, the smell of rats and soot. When she lay on the floor in the dark beside her snoring parents, she thought of Tessie, gone on in the wagon with Jock, sleeping she could not think where that night but not far off, on the road to Rushfield, in some open space by a bridge, perhaps, with the Stikes wagon near, and Screw Brook and Connie a little way on down the pike, the horses grazing about wherever they could. She would have something to tell Tessie when her father's wagon overtook the others. She recited in her mind the story of the adventure as she would tell it. Her thin, almost emaciated body fitted flat against the cabin floor, lying flatter and thinner than the tall bent woman stretched out beside her.
'After you-all went the blacksmith worked on our wagon tongue a long spell before he got it fixed. A farmer came up alongside the wagon and talked to Pappy about work in his patch. You could smell the iron when it went in the tub red hot and you could smell horse hoof. I saw you-all's wagon go on down the road till it got round and a sight littler and seemed like anybody's wagon a-goen anywheres. The country all around got little and narrow and I says to myself, "The world's little and you just set still in it and that's all there is. There ain't e'er ocean," I says, "nor e'er city nor e'er river nor e'er north pole. There's just the little edge of a wheat field and a little edge of a blacksmith shop with nails on the ground, and there's a road a-goen off a little piece with puddles of water a-standen, and there's mud," I says. When it rained Mammy pulled up the storm sheet. The farmer kept a-walken up and down and a-looken at the sky. "I need a hand tomorrow and I'm a-goen to pay well," he says. He'd put his hands inside his pockets and say, "You can take it or leave it." And then he climbed up on his big black critter and made like he was gone. "If that-there gal's any good a-worken she can have twenty-five cents a hour, and the woman too." Pappy said, "I don't allow to work my old woman. The youngone can. She can do a sight in a day." Then towards dark we went down the pike and off up a little dirt road to the house the farmer said we could have all night, and we dragged our bed in on the floor. It was a poor trash house. There was water a-runnen down the wall by the chimney flue and a puddle on the floor off on the yon side of the fireplace, but we kept dry. You could hear the rain all night a-fallen on the roof and a-drippen on the floor, and it was a fair sound. The house was a one-room house, an o'nary place, but before night I saw a cubbyhole against the chimney and a cubbyhole is good to put away in. The chimney was made outen rocks and it had soot smells a-comen outen it, and there was negro smells a-comen out from back in the corners. When it came on to rain Pappy went out and put the critters under a shed.'
The next morning a mist was spreading over the farm, but the rain was over. As soon as he had eaten from the supply of food in the wagon, Henry went off without a word. Ellen watched him cross the creek at the water gap and go up the fencerow toward the farmhouse. Her mother sat in the door of the cabin and waited.
'If you're a mind to drap you better be a-goen up there,' she said. 'You better leave your shoes behind you. Baccer setten is a muddy time.'
Ellen hid her shoes in the wagon. She took off her outer skirt, a dark blue garment, and folded it neatly over the shoes, for Tessie had given her the skirt. The garment removed, she stood clothed in a drab-green waist and a short grey cotton petticoat. She went up the fencerow, the way her father had gone, shy at being between fences, at being penned in a field, a little uncomfortable for the beans and bacon she had eaten, uncertain as to which way to go and as to what was expected of her.
At the top of the field she found the labourers assembled. The farmer had drawn plants out of the bed earlier in the morning, and he gave a basket of these to Ellen, showing her how to drop them along the rows, how to space them by an accurate guess. The men who set the plants into the ground followed her. They made a hole in the soft earth with a round stick and pushed the plant into the hole, squeezing the mud about it with the left hand, bending along the rows, almost never straightening from row end to row end. Ellen walked ahead of the men, dropping a plant first to right and then to left, completing the farmer's field and leading a procession over a rolling hill, her bare feet, red from the sun and the dew, sinking into the mud where the field lay lowest. Her father and a grown boy named Ezra were those who worked behind her. In the mid-morning her mother came slowly, aimlessly, up the fencerow. The farmer offered her twenty-five cents an hour to take his place at the plant bed. 'You could sit here on this board and be right comfortable and be earnen a little pin money besides. There won't be more'n a hour or two of it and then a rest.'
'I might work for a spell,' she said.
At noon they sat under a tree by a fence and waited until food was brought from the farmhouse. The farmer himself came with a basket, his wife following with a coffeepot and some cups. The farmer displayed his offering, bread and pieces of ham dripping hot. There was milk to go in the cups after the coffee and there were fried potatoes and stewed peas. The farmer's wife stayed only a moment, mopping her face, and the farmer said, pointing to the basket, 'Here's a pie when you-all are ready for it, and if anybody wants any more helpens all he has to do is to ask. I always feed my hands well.' Then he too went back up to the house.
Their fingers were brown on the white bread. They ate shyly, making at first as if they hardly cared to eat at all, picking meagrely at the bread, letting the peas stand untasted in the tin pail. Ezra said:
'I allow you-all are foreigners.'
'We are on our way a-travellen. We are a-looken for a good place to settle down,' Henry said.
'Is the place where you-all come from a far piece from here?'
'A right far piece.'
'I allow you-all been all the way maybe to Green County, or maybe to Hardin or Larue.'
'Larue! I been all the way to Tennessee and then on to Georgia.'
An expression of wonder.
'I been all the way to Tennessee and then on to Georgia and back once and on to Tennessee once again. Me and my old woman and that-there gal there, all three of us. Say, old woman, I'm plum a fool about peas. Let's have some outen that bucket there.'
'But before that I lived in Taylor County,' Henry said after the peas had been eaten. After the hour spent by the tree the work went forward again. Ellen caught the rhythm of her task and rested upon it, gaining thus a chance to look about her a little. The farmhouse stood off among tall trees, a yellow shape with points here and there, two red chimneys budding out of the roof. In her mind the house touched something she almost knew. The treetops above the roof, the mist in the trees, the points of the roof, dull colour, all belonging to the farmer, the yellow wall, the distance lying off across a rolling cornfield that was mottled with the wet and traced with lines of low corn – all these touched something settled and comforting in her mind, something like a drink of water after an hour of thirst, like a little bridge over a stream that ran out of a thicket, like cool steps going up into a shaded doorway. That night she lay again on the quilts on the cabin floor beside her mother. Her shoulders ached from carrying the basket all day and her feet were sore from the sun and the mud. Until two weeks before, when her father had bought her shoes at a country store, she had gone barefoot for many months, and her feet were tough and hard, but the mud had eaten into the flesh. When she had returned from the field at sundown she had found that someone had stolen her shoes from the wagon. Her folded skirt had been thrown aside and the shoes were gone, but nothing else had been taken. Lying on the quilts she thought again of Tessie. Her closed eyes saw again the objects of the day in the field, the near mud over which she bent, her feet pulling in and out of it, little grains of soil swimming past her tired eyes. The farmer was there with his stiff legs and square butt, bending over the plant bed, urging everyone forward, trying to be both familiar and commanding. Across the mud and the swimming grains of soil ran his yellow house, off past trees, ran mist, roof-shapes, bobolinks over a meadow, blackbirds in locust trees, bumblebees dragging their bodies over red clover.
'Nine hours I worked and made two dollars and a quarter, but shoes cost two dollars. I'll have a heap to tell Tessie.'
A faint sinking came to her breast. What if her father couldn't catch up with Jock after he left Rushfield? She knew that Jock did not care whether he caught up or not, that Henry was but a meek hanger-on of the cavalcade, unbelonging. Her father's voice came back, floating under the spell of the farmer, 'Monday is a court day in Rushfield and I can't very well see my way clear to work that day. I got a right smart to do in town a Monday. I got to meet my partner ...' Henry's voice, wavering. Then the farmer, 'Now see here. I'm afeared the season can't last over to Tuesday. I can't work my hands on a Sunday. Some men can but by golly I'm placed so's I can't. I'll give you four dollars to stay and set for me Monday and the gal thirty cents a hour ...'
The grains of dust floated before her weary eyes, under the lids, and flecks of mud caked into heavy lumps, impeding and clodding. Ants walked over the warm mud and worms lay dead in the sun or turned crawling back into the soil.
It was not until Sunday that Henry Chesser brought the grub box in from the wagon. Nellie, his wife, set out the things on the mantel over the fireplace, and she and Ellen built a fire and cooked over it, frying bacon and making a corn pone. Henry turned his two horses into the pasture at the farmer's suggestion. After he had eaten of the bacon and the pone, Henry lay on the ground in the shade of the house and Nellie sat in the doorway watching the yellow lane down which a few people passed during the morning. She began to smoke a cob pipe, wheedling the tobacco from her husband. When they were quiet, Ellen went off through the underbrush along the creek and waded across the stream behind a screen of willows. She saw her work of yesterday, ragged and new, the plants set where she had dropped them. Today it would rain again and tomorrow there would be the rest of the field to plant. She could hear the loud cackling of the hens over toward the barn and the farmer's house, a high fluted sound spreading over the farm. She saw Mr Hep Bodine – the farmer – stroll down the fencerow beside the tobacco, looking at his field, stopping to look, walking jerkily on. He wore a pale shirt that stuck out of his vest stiffly – his Sunday clothes. She hid in a thick clump of brush until he went back up the hill, for she was afraid he might ask her what she was doing, or he might order her back to the cabin. Sometimes men cursed her when she walked on their land – 'You damned little road rat, get out of here.' Mr Hep might not; he was going to pay her thirty cents an hour tomorrow to drop plants for his men, but she felt safer in the brush.
'If only some o'nary trash hadn't stole my shoes,' she said when a thorn drove into her heel and sent cold quivers of pain to the very roots of her hair. She bit hard at her cheeks and lips and waited until the tremors passed out of her flesh. 'It's o'nary to steal,' she said.
'It's right low down, now, right wrong. You dasn't steal from your own set. That-there would be awful wrong, and I reckon it's wrong nohow. It's wrong to the folks that lose the stuff and that makes it come around wrong to the body that takes it. Only if a man's got so much he never misses what you take, why then it seems like it might maybe not be wrong, only you can't tell whe'r a man is a-goen to miss it or not and so it's wrong, I reckon, no matter.'
A deeper whisper came in her mind suddenly, so sharp as to have the force of another speaker: 'What about the times you took things yourself? Eggs sometimes, more'n often. What about the chicken? Wood, if you call that-there stealen?'
'Pappy don't steal, not a lick, nor Joe and Jock. If they did they'd get put in jail and it takes a sight of money to get outen jail. The Stikes youngones are always a-finden things. If they see a thing it's lost for sure and they find it right off.' She liked to dwell on this last idea to deny the hard voice any interval for speech.
'Sometimes you been a-finden things,' it rolled out, unbidden. Her brain felt very cold and hard. Cold spread back to the base of her head. She had found things. Tessie knew, or maybe Tessie knew. But sometimes it was so cold they must have a fire, her mind argued with its knowledge. Oh, bitter burning in fingers that were like sticks, shivering body and no underwear. Cold, even in Tennessee, but warm when one got under the covers, other bodies lying close. But the eggs and the chicken, that was more. You had to go out of your way to get them. That was just plain stealing any way you looked at it.
'But you have to eat. Your belly makes you do it,' her lips said.
The land lay rolling in large plates, some of them green with high wheat, some faintly crisscrossed with corn rows, some in pasture. She kept among the bushes as long as she could, going toward the house by indirect ways. She found some wild strawberries in an upper pasture on a hillside and many of these she ate as she passed. Higher up a fenceline she came to a wild apple tree with little knotty green apples hanging, and she ate two of these, wishing for salt. The yellow house allured her but she dared not approach it directly. She wondered if the farmer knew about the dull roof, now sharp in the sun, and if he knew how the yellow gables came out of the tree boughs, all set and still, fixed behind boughs, gables fitting into each other, snug and firm. Going up and down roads she had seen many houses, the angles turning with the turning of roads. Up the fence tangle, creeping and worming, she went now, to lie at last among tall weeds just beyond the vegetable garden. A horse, hitched to a two-seated buggy, was tied to a post beside the house. At the side doorstep a shepherd dog lay in the sun, but once he lifted his head and growled lazily. After a little the farmer and two women came from the house and climbed into the buggy, calling impatiently to someone.
Excerpted from The Time of Man by Elizabeth Madox Roberts. Copyright © 2013 Hesperus Press Limited. Excerpted by permission of Hesperus Press Limited.
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.