Tobacco Laureate

FROM The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth

What with every military advantage—arms, numbers, and absolute surprise—the strange war party of Indians was not long in attaining its objective, which seemed to be the capture of the sloop with all hands. Bertrand and the Captain were wakened with spearheads at their throats and brought forward, the former inarticulate with fright, the latter bellowing and sputtering—first at his captors, then at Ebenezer for not sounding some alarm, and finally and most violently, when he grasped the situation, at the treacherous members of his crew.

“I’ll see ye drawn to the scaffold and quartered!” he declared but the Negroes only smiled and turned their eyes as if embarrassed by his threats. The leader of the party spoke sharply in an incomprehensible tongue to one of his lieutenants, who relayed it in another, equally strange language to the Negro sailors, and was answered in the same manner; during their colloquy Ebenezer observed that, though the boarders were dressed almost identically in deerskin match-coats and hats of beaver, racoon, or muskrat, nearly half their number were not Indians at all, but Negroes. The Captain remarked this fact as well and began at once to rail at them for fugitives and poltroons, but his audience gave no sign of understanding. Apparently satisfied that there were no more passengers aboard the sloop and no more vessels in the cove, the raiders then bound their captives at wrist and ankle, handed them bodily over the rail, and obliged them to lie face-down, one to a canoe, throughout a brief but circuitous passage into the marsh, which, like the earlier phases of the coup, was executed in total silence. Presently the canoes were secured to a clump of wax myrtles, the ropes around the prisoners’ ankles were exchanged for a longer one that tethered them by the neck in a line, and the party proceeded on foot down a path as meandering as the waterway, and so narrow that even single file it was hard to avoid misstepping into the muck on either side.

“This is outrageous!” Ebenezer complained. “I never dreamed such things still happened in 1694, in the very bosom of the Province!”

“Nor I,” the Captain replied, from his post in the van of the prisoners. “Nor e’er heard tell of an Indian town on Bloodsworth Island. I’Christ, ’tis naught but marsh from stem to stern, and not dry ground enough to stand on.”

“God save us!” Bertrand groaned—his first words since he’d fallen asleep some hours before. “They’ll scalp our heads and burn us at the stake!”

“Whatever for?” the poet inquired. “We’ve done ’em no injury, that I can see.”

” ‘Tis e’er the salvages’ wont,” his valet insisted. “Ye’ve but to run afoul of one in your evening stroll, and bang! he’ll skin your pate as ye’d skin a peach! Why, ’tis still the talk in Vansweringen’s how a wench named Kersley was set upon by Indians in Charles County, year before last: she was crossing a field of sot-weed ‘twixt her own house and her father’s, with the sun still shining and a babe on her arm besides, but ere she reached her husband’s door she had been scalped, stuck with a knife, and swived from whipple to Whitsuntide! And again, not far from Bohemia Manor –”

“Be still,” the Captain snapped, “ere your own tales beshit ye.”

” ‘Tis all quite well for you to take your scalping without a word,” Bertrand replied undaunted. ” ‘Twas you steered us hither in the first place –”

“I! ‘Sblood and ‘sbody, sir, ’tis thy good fortune the salvage hath belayed my two hands, else I’d have thy scalp myself!”

“Gentlemen!” Ebenezer interposed. “Our case is grave enough without such talk! ‘Twas I that hired the passage; you may hold me answerable for everything if ’twill ease your minds to do so, though it strikes me we’d do better to give over wondering who got us into this pickle and bend our minds instead to getting out.”

“Amen,” the Captain grunted.

“Still and all,” Bertrand said disconsolately, “I must hold Betsy Birdsall to some account, for had she not rescued me last March in such a deuced clever manner, I’d not be trussed up here like a trout on a gill string.”

“Really!” the Captain cried. “Thou’rt unhinged!”

“Stay, prithee stay,” Ebenezer pleaded. Since the Captain’s first sharp words to Bertrand, the poet’s brow had been knitting, and his admonitions were made distractedly. Now he asked the Captain, “Was’t not the Straits of Limbo we entered yonder cove from, or did I mishear you?”

“That was my guess, sir,” the older man said, “unless the tide fetched us down as low as Holland or Kedge’s Straits, which I doubt.”

“But if not, the name of the strait is Limbo? And is there a river mouth not far hence, with an Indian name?”

“A hatchful of ’em,” the Captain replied, not greatly interested, “and they all have salvage names: Honga, Nanticoke, Wicomico, Manokin, Annamessex, Pocomoke –”

“Wicomico! Aye, Wicomico—’tis the name Smith mentioned in his Historie!”

The Captain muttered something exasperated, and to avoid being thought deranged by fear like his servant, Ebenezer explained in the simplest way possible what he had been grasping for since the first mention of Limbo Straits and had recalled only with the help of the word beshit: that Captain John Smith of Virginia, almost ninety years previously, had discovered those same straits during his voyage of exploration up the Chesapeake; had, like themselves, encountered a furious storm therein and suffered the additional discomforts of a diarrhetic company; had in consequence of his ordeal bestowed the name Limbo on the place; and finally had been made prisoner, with all his party, by a band of warlike Indians—perhaps the grandfathers of their present captors!

“Ye don’t tell me,” the Captain said. Neither did Bertrand appear to be overwhelmed by the coincidence, for when to his single inquiry, “Prithee, what came of ’em?” his master confessed that he had not the slightest idea, the valet relapsed into gloom.

But once Ebenezer had wrested the Secret Historie from his memory he could not but marvel at the parallel between John Smith’s experience and their own. Moreover, the existence of the Historie itself attested that Smith and at least some of his party had escaped or been freed by their captors. His reflections were interrupted at this point by their arrival at the Indians’ town, an assemblage of mean little huts arranged in a thick circle upon an island of relatively high ground. There seemed to be well over a hundred in all, dome-shaped affairs of small logs and thatched twigs; surrounded as they were by the marsh, they resembled nothing so much as a colony of muskrat houses, the more since their occupants were cloaked and capped with fur. The citizenry appeared to be sleeping: except for a single hidden sentry who challenged their approach with a “Too-hoo!” from his post in a nearby brush clump, and was answered in kind, the town was as still as one deserted.

” ‘Tis passing queer,” the Captain grumbled. “Never saw an Indian town without a pack o’ curs about.”

But if the silence of the village was disconcerting, what broke it a few moments later was nothing less than extraordinary: they had passed through the ring of dwellings to a clearing or open court in the center of the town, and during a whispered colloquy between the leader and his black lieutenant there came from a hut not far away a sudden wailing that raised the poet’s hackles. Through his fancy, in half a second, passed the various Indian cruelties he had learned of from Henry Burlingame: how they bit the nails from their victims’ fingers, twisted the fingers themselves from the hands, drove skewers into the remaining stumps, pulled sinews from the arms, tore out the hair and beard, hung hot hatchets around the neck, and poured hot sand on scalped heads.

“Marry come up!” breathed the Captain, and Bertrand’s teeth began to chatter. The wail changed pitch and tone and changed again a moment afterwards, and again, but not until the wailer drew fresh breath and recommenced did the prisoners grasp the nature of the sound.


Published in: on February 26, 2010 at 12:14 PM  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Although I am currently inundated with books to be read, I had to add this one to my shopping list. Thanks.

    • The title I gave that post may seem a bit enigmatic, but no more so than Barth’s for the book. As you probably already know, L C, “sot-weed” is an archaic name for tobacco, and “factor” is the same for a distributor or middleman. BTW, the book made Times Best 100 Novels list. You’ll definitely see traces of other, older satirical novels in it. Since you list Waugh among your influences, I think you’ll like it.

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