THE QUEST OF THE SILVER FLEECE
W.E.B. DU BOIS
A.C. McClurg & Co.
THE QUEST OF THE SILVER FLEECE
Note from the Author 3
One: DREAMS 5
Two: THE SCHOOL 12
Three: MISS MARY TAYLOR 16
Four: TOWN 23
Five: ZORA 33
Six: COTTON 42
Seven: THE PLACE OF DREAMS 53
Eight: MR. HARRY CRESSWELL 66
Nine: THE PLANTING 74
Ten: MR. TAYLOR CALLS 84
Eleven: THE FLOWERING OF THE FLEECE 99
Twelve: THE PROMISE 108
Thirteen: MRS. GREY GIVES A DINNER 122
Fourteen: LOVE 128
Fifteen: REVELATION 134
Sixteen: THE GREAT REFUSAL 146
Seventeen: THE RAPE OF THE FLEECE 154
Eighteen: THE COTTON CORNER 162
Nineteen: THE DYING OF ELSPETH 171
Twenty: THE WEAVING OF THE SILVER FLEECE 182
Twenty-one: THE MARRIAGE MORNING 191
Twenty-two: MISS CAROLINE WYNN 199
Twenty-three: THE TRAINING OF ZORA 210
Twenty-four: THE EDUCATION OF ALWYN 218
Twenty-five: THE CAMPAIGN 230
Twenty-six: CONGRESSMAN CRESSWELL 244
Twenty-seven: THE VISION OF ZORA 254
Twenty-eight: THE ANNUNCIATION 263
Twenty-nine: A MASTER OF FATE 271
Thirty: THE RETURN OF ZORA 283
Thirty-one: A PARTING OF WAYS 293
Thirty-two: ZORA'S WAY 309
Thirty-three: THE BUYING OF THE SWAMP 316
Thirty-four: THE RETURN OF ALWYN 328
Thirty-five: THE COTTON MILL 339
Thirty-six: THE LAND 350
Thirty-seven: THE MOB 364
Thirty-eight: ATONEMENT 371
THE QUEST OF THE SILVER FLEECE
whose name may not be written but to whose tireless faith the shaping of these cruder thoughts to forms more fitly perfect is doubtless due, this finished work is herewith dedicated
He who would tell a tale must look toward three ideals: to tell it well, to tell it beautifully, and to tell the truth.
The first is the Gift of God, the second is the Vision of Genius, but the third is the Reward of Honesty.
In The Quest of the Silver Fleece there is little, I ween, divine or ingenious; but, at least, I have been honest. In no fact or picture have I consciously set down aught the counterpart of which I have not seen or known; and whatever the finished picture may lack of completeness, this lack is due now to the story-teller, now to the artist, but never to the herald of the Truth.
NEW YORK CITY
August 15, 1911
Night fell. The red waters of the swamp grew sinister and sullen. The tall pines lost their slimness and stood in wide blurred blotches all across the way, and a great shadowy bird arose, wheeled and melted, murmuring, into the black-green sky.
The boy wearily dropped his heavy bundle and stood still, listening as the voice of crickets split the shadows and made the silence audible. A tear wandered down his brown cheek. They were at supper now, he whispered—the father and old mother, away back yonder beyond the night. They were far away; they would never be as near as once they had been, for he had stepped into the world. And the cat and Old Billy—ah, but the world was a lonely thing, so wide and tall and empty! And so bare, so bitter bare! Somehow he had never dreamed of the world as lonely before; he had fared forth to beckoning hands and luring, and to the eager hum of human voices, as of some great, swelling music.
Yet now he was alone; the empty night was closing all about him here in a strange land, and he was afraid. The bundle with his earthly treasure had hung heavy and heavier on his shoulder; his little horde of money was tightly wadded in his sock, and the school lay hidden somewhere far away in the shadows. He wondered how far it was; he looked and harkened, starting at his own heartbeats, and fearing more and more the long dark fingers of the night.
Then of a sudden up from the darkness came music. It was human music, but of a wildness and a weirdness that startled the boy as it fluttered and danced across the dull red waters of the swamp. He hesitated, then impelled by some strange power, left the highway and slipped into the forest of the swamp, shrinking, yet following the song hungrily and half forgetting his fear. A harsher, shriller note struck in as of many and ruder voices; but above it flew the first sweet music, birdlike, abandoned, and the boy crept closer.
The cabin crouched ragged and black at the edge of black waters. An old chimney leaned drunkenly against it, raging with fire and smoke, while through the chinks winked red gleams of warmth and wild cheer. With a revel of shouting and noise, the music suddenly ceased. Hoarse staccato cries and peals of laughter shook the old hut, and as the boy stood there peering through the black trees, abruptly the door flew open and a flood of light illumined the wood.
Amid this mighty halo, as on clouds of flame, a girl was dancing. She was black, and lithe, and tall, and willowy. Her garments twined and flew around the delicate moulding of her dark, young, half-naked limbs. A heavy mass of hair clung motionless to her wide forehead. Her arms twirled and flickered, and body and soul seemed quivering and whirring in the poetry of her motion.
As she danced she sang. He heard her voice as before, fluttering like a bird's in the full sweetness of her utter music. It was no tune nor melody, it was just formless, boundless music. The boy forgot himself and all the world besides. All his darkness was sudden light; dazzled he crept forward, bewildered, fascinated, until with one last wild whirl the elf-girl paused. The crimson light fell full upon the warm and velvet bronze of her face—her midnight eyes were aglow, her full purple lips apart, her half hid bosom panting, and all the music dead. Involuntarily the boy gave a gasping cry and awoke to swamp and night and fire, while a white face, drawn, red-eyed, peered outward from some hidden throng within the cabin.
"Who's that?" a harsh voice cried.
"Where?" "Who is it?" and pale crowding faces blurred the light.
The boy wheeled blindly and fled in terror stumbling through the swamp, hearing strange sounds and feeling stealthy creeping hands and arms and whispering voices. On he toiled in mad haste, struggling toward the road and losing it until finally beneath the shadows of a mighty oak he sank exhausted. There he lay a while trembling and at last drifted into dreamless sleep.
It was morning when he awoke and threw a startled glance upward to the twisted branches of the oak that bent above, sifting down sunshine on his brown face and close curled hair. Slowly he remembered the loneliness, the fear and wild running through the dark. He laughed in the bold courage of day and stretched himself.
Then suddenly he bethought him again of that vision of the night—the waving arms and flying limbs of the girl, and her great black eyes looking into the night and calling him. He could hear her now, and hear that wondrous savage music. Had it been real? Had he dreamed? Or had it been some witch-vision of the night, come to tempt and lure him to his undoing? Where was that black and flaming cabin? Where was the girl—the soul that had called him? She must have been real; she had to live and dance and sing; he must again look into the mystery of her great eyes. And he sat up in sudden determination, and, lo! gazed straight into the very eyes of his dreaming.
She sat not four feet from him, leaning against the great tree, her eyes now languorously abstracted, now alert and quizzical with mischief. She seemed but half-clothed, and her warm, dark flesh peeped furtively through the rent gown; her thick, crisp hair was frowsy and rumpled, and the long curves of her bare young arms gleamed in the morning sunshine, glowing with vigor and life. A little mocking smile came and sat upon her lips.
"What you run for?" she asked, with dancing mischief in her eyes.
"Because—" he hesitated, and his cheeks grew hot.
"I knows," she said, with impish glee, laughing low music.
"Why?" he challenged, sturdily.
"You was a-feared."
He bridled. "Well, I reckon you'd be a-feared if you was caught out in the black dark all alone."
"Pooh!" she scoffed and hugged her knees. "Pooh! I've stayed out all alone heaps o' nights."
He looked at her with a curious awe.
"I don't believe you," he asserted; but she tossed her head and her eyes grew scornful.
"Who's a-feared of the dark? I love night." Her eyes grew soft.
He watched her silently, till, waking from her daydream, she abruptly asked:
"Where you from?"
He looked at her in surprise, but she seemed matter-of-fact.
"It's away over yonder," he answered.
"Behind where the sun comes up?"
"Then it ain't so far," she declared. "I knows where the sun rises, and I knows where it sets." She looked up at its gleaming splendor glinting through the leaves, and, noting its height, announced abruptly:
"So'm I," answered the boy, fumbling at his bundle; and then, timidly: "Will you eat with me?"
"Yes," she said, and watched him with eager eyes.
Untying the strips of cloth, he opened his box, and disclosed chicken and biscuits, ham and corn-bread. She clapped her hands in glee.
"Is there any water near?" he asked.
Without a word, she bounded up and flitted off like a brown bird, gleaming dull-golden in the sun, glancing in and out among the trees, till she paused above a tiny black pool, and then came tripping and swaying back with hands held cupwise and dripping with cool water.
"Drink," she cried. Obediently he bent over the little hands that seemed so soft and thin. He took a deep draught; and then to drain the last drop, his hands touched hers and the shock of flesh first meeting flesh startled them both, while the water rained through. A moment their eyes looked deep into each other's—a timid, startled gleam in hers; a wonder in his. Then she said dreamily:
"We'se known us all our lives, and—before, ain't we?"
"Ye—es—I reckon," he slowly returned. And then, brightening, he asked gayly: "And we'll be friends always, won't we?"
"Yes," she said at last, slowly and solemnly, and another brief moment they stood still.
Then the mischief danced in her eyes, and a song bubbled on her lips. She hopped to the tree.
"Come—eat!" she cried. And they nestled together amid the big black roots of the oak, laughing and talking while they ate.
"What's over there?" he asked pointing northward.
"Cresswell's big house."
"And yonder to the west?"
He started joyfully.
"The school! What school?"
"Old Miss' School."
"Miss Smith's school?"
"Yes." The tone was disdainful.
"Why, that's where I'm going. I was a-feared it was a long way off; I must have passed it in the night."
"I hate it!" cried the girl, her lips tense.
"But I'll be so near," he explained. "And why do you hate it?"
"Yes—you'll be near," she admitted; "that'll be nice; but—" she glanced westward, and the fierce look faded. Soft joy crept to her face again, and she sat once more dreaming.
"Yon way's nicest," she said.
"Why, what's there?"
"The swamp," she said mysteriously.
"And what's beyond the swamp?"
She crouched beside him and whispered in eager, tense tones: "Dreams!"
He looked at her, puzzled.
"Dreams?" vaguely—"dreams? Why, dreams ain't—nothing."
"Oh, yes they is!" she insisted, her eyes flaming in misty radiance as she sat staring beyond the shadows of the swamp. "Yes they is! There ain't nothing but dreams—that is, nothing much.
"And over yonder behind the swamps is great fields full of dreams, piled high and burning; and right amongst them the sun, when he's tired o' night, whispers and drops red things, 'cept when devils make 'em black."
The boy stared at her; he knew not whether to jeer or wonder.
"How you know?" he asked at last, skeptically.
"Promise you won't tell?"
"Yes," he answered.
She cuddled into a little heap, nursing her knees, and answered slowly.
"I goes there sometimes. I creeps in 'mongst the dreams; they hangs there like big flowers, dripping dew and sugar and blood—red, red blood. And there's little fairies there that hop about and sing, and devils—great, ugly devils that grabs at you and roasts and eats you if they gits you; but they don't git me. Some devils is big and white, like ha'nts; some is long and shiny, like creepy, slippery snakes; and some is little and broad and black, and they yells—"
The boy was listening in incredulous curiosity, half minded to laugh, half minded to edge away from the black-red radiance of yonder dusky swamp. He glanced furtively backward, and his heart gave a great bound.
"Some is little and broad and black, and they yells—" chanted the girl. And as she chanted, deep, harsh tones came booming through the forest:
"Zo-ra! Zo-ra! O—o—oh, Zora!"
He saw far behind him, toward the shadows of the swamp, an old woman—short, broad, black and wrinkled, with fangs and pendulous lips and red, wicked eyes. His heart bounded in sudden fear; he wheeled toward the girl, and caught only the uncertain flash of her garments—the wood was silent, and he was alone.
He arose, startled, quickly gathered his bundle, and looked around him. The sun was strong and high, the morning fresh and vigorous. Stamping one foot angrily, he strode jauntily out of the wood toward the big road.
But ever and anon he glanced curiously back. Had he seen a haunt? Or was the elf-girl real? And then he thought of her words:
"We'se known us all our lives."
Day was breaking above the white buildings of the Negro school and throwing long, low lines of gold in at Miss Sarah Smith's front window. She lay in the stupor of her last morning nap, after a night of harrowing worry. Then, even as she partially awoke, she lay still with closed eyes, feeling the shadow of some great burden, yet daring not to rouse herself and recall its exact form; slowly again she drifted toward unconsciousness.
"Bang! bang! bang!" hard knuckles were beating upon the door below.
She heard drowsily, and dreamed that it was the nailing up of all her doors; but she did not care much, and but feebly warded the blows away, for she was very tired.
"Bang! bang! bang!" persisted the hard knuckles.
She started up, and her eye fell upon a letter lying on her bureau. Back she sank with a sigh, and lay staring at the ceiling—a gaunt, flat, sad-eyed creature, with wisps of gray hair half-covering her baldness, and a face furrowed with care and gathering years.
It was thirty years ago this day, she recalled, since she first came to this broad land of shade and shine in Alabama to teach black folks.
It had been a hard beginning with suspicion and squalor around; with poverty within and without the first white walls of the new school home. Yet somehow the struggle then with all its helplessness and disappointment had not seemed so bitter as today: then failure meant but little, now it seemed to mean everything; then it meant disappointment to a score of ragged urchins, now it meant two hundred boys and girls, the spirits of a thousand gone before and the hopes of thousands to come. In her imagination the significance of these half dozen gleaming buildings perched aloft seemed portentous—big with the destiny not simply of a county and a State, but of a race—a nation—a world. It was God's own cause, and yet—
"Bang! bang! bang!" again went the hard knuckles down there at the front.
Miss Smith slowly arose, shivering a bit and wondering who could possibly be rapping at that time in the morning. She sniffed the chilling air and was sure she caught some lingering perfume from Mrs. Vanderpool's gown. She had brought this rich and rare-apparelled lady up here yesterday, because it was more private, and here she had poured forth her needs. She had talked long and in deadly earnest. She had not spoken of the endowment for which she had hoped so desperately during a quarter of a century—no, only for the five thousand dollars to buy the long needed new land. It was so little—so little beside what this woman squandered—
The insistent knocking was repeated louder than before.
"Sakes alive," cried Miss Smith, throwing a shawl about her and leaning out the window. "Who is it, and what do you want?"
"Please, ma'am. I've come to school," answered a tall black boy with a bundle.
"Well, why don't you go to the office?" Then she saw his face and hesitated. She felt again the old motherly instinct to be the first to welcome the new pupil; a luxury which, in later years, the endless push of details had denied her.
"Wait!" she cried shortly, and began to dress.
A new boy, she mused. Yes, every day they straggled in; every day came the call for more, more—this great, growing thirst to know—to do—to be. And yet that woman had sat right here, aloof, imperturbable, listening only courteously. When Miss Smith finished, she had paused and, flicking her glove,—
"My dear Miss Smith," she said softly, with a tone that just escaped a drawl—"My dear Miss Smith, your work is interesting and your faith—marvellous; but, frankly, I cannot make myself believe in it. You are trying to treat these funny little monkeys just as you would your own children—or even mine. It's quite heroic, of course, but it's sheer madness, and I do not feel I ought to encourage it. I would not mind a thousand or so to train a good cook for the Cresswells, or a clean and faithful maid for myself—for Helene has faults—or indeed deft and tractable laboring-folk for any one; but I'm quite through trying to turn natural servants into masters of me and mine. I—hope I'm not too blunt; I hope I make myself clear. You know, statistics show—"
"Drat statistics!" Miss Smith had flashed impatiently. "These are folks."
Mrs. Vanderpool smiled indulgently. "To be sure," she murmured, "but what sort of folks?"
But Miss Smith had the bit in her teeth and could not have stopped. She was paying high for the privilege of talking, but it had to be said.
"God's sort, Mrs. Vanderpool—not the sort that think of the world as arranged for their exclusive benefit and comfort."
"Well, I do want to count—"
Miss Smith bent forward—not a beautiful pose, but earnest.
"I want you to count, and I want to count, too; but I don't want us to be the only ones that count. I want to live in a world where every soul counts—white, black, and yellow—all. That's what I'm teaching these children here—to count, and not to be like dumb, driven cattle. If you don't believe in this, of course you cannot help us."
"Your spirit is admirable, Miss Smith," she had said very softly; "I only wish I could feel as you do. Good-afternoon," and she had rustled gently down the narrow stairs, leaving an all but imperceptible suggestion of perfume. Miss Smith could smell it yet as she went down this morning.
The breakfast bell jangled. "Five thousand dollars," she kept repeating to herself, greeting the teachers absently—"five thousand dollars." And then on the porch she was suddenly aware of the awaiting boy. She eyed him critically: black, fifteen, country-bred, strong, clear-eyed.
"Well?" she asked in that brusque manner wherewith her natural timidity was wont to mask her kindness. "Well, sir?"
"I've come to school."
"Humph—we can't teach boys for nothing."
The boy straightened. "I can pay my way," he returned.
"You mean you can pay what we ask?"
"Why, yes. Ain't that all?"
"No. The rest is gathered from the crumbs of Dives' table."
Then he saw the twinkle in her eyes. She laid her hand gently upon his shoulder.
"If you don't hurry you'll be late to breakfast," she said with an air of confidence. "See those boys over there? Follow them, and at noon come to the office—wait! What's your name?"
"Blessed Alwyn," he answered, and the passing teachers smiled.
MISS MARY TAYLOR
Miss Mary Taylor did not take a college course for the purpose of teaching Negroes. Not that she objected to Negroes as human beings—quite the contrary. In the debate between the senior societies her defence of the Fifteenth Amendment had been not only a notable bit of reasoning, but delivered with real enthusiasm. Nevertheless, when the end of the summer came and the only opening facing her was the teaching of children at Miss Smith's experiment in the Alabama swamps, it must be frankly confessed that Miss Taylor was disappointed.
Her dream had been a post-graduate course at Bryn Mawr; but that was out of the question until money was earned. She had pictured herself earning this by teaching one or two of her "specialties" in some private school near New York or Boston, or even in a Western college. The South she had not thought of seriously; and yet, knowing of its delightful hospitality and mild climate, she was not averse to Charleston or New Orleans. But from the offer that came to teach Negroes—country Negroes, and little ones at that—she shrank, and, indeed, probably would have refused it out of hand had it not been for her queer brother, John. John Taylor, who had supported her through college, was interested in cotton. Having certain schemes in mind, he had been struck by the fact that the Smith School was in the midst of the Alabama cotton-belt.
"Better go," he had counselled, sententiously. "Might learn something useful down there."
She had been not a little dismayed by the outlook, and had protested against his blunt insistence.
"But, John, there's no society—just elementary work—"
John had met this objection with, "Humph!" as he left for his office. Next day he had returned to the subject.
"Been looking up Tooms County. Find some Cresswells there—big plantations—rated at two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Some others, too; big cotton county."
"You ought to know, John, if I teach Negroes I'll scarcely see much of people in my own class."
"Nonsense! Butt in. Show off. Give 'em your Greek—and study Cotton. At any rate, I say go."
And so, howsoever reluctantly, she had gone.
The trial was all she had anticipated, and possibly a bit more. She was a pretty young woman of twenty-three, fair and rather daintily moulded. In favorable surroundings, she would have been an aristocrat and an epicure. Here she was teaching dirty children, and the smell of confused odors and bodily perspiration was to her at times unbearable.
Then there was the fact of their color: it was a fact so insistent, so fatal she almost said at times, that she could not escape it. Theoretically she had always treated it with disdainful ease.
"What's the mere color of a human soul's skin," she had cried to a Wellesley audience and the audience had applauded with enthusiasm. But here in Alabama, brought closely and intimately in touch with these dark skinned children, their color struck her at first with a sort of terror—it seemed ominous and forbidding. She found herself shrinking away and gripping herself lest they should perceive. She could not help but think that in most other things they were as different from her as in color. She groped for new ways to teach colored brains and marshal colored thoughts and the result was puzzling both to teacher and student. With the other teachers she had little commerce. They were in no sense her sort of folk. Miss Smith represented the older New England of her parents—honest, inscrutable, determined, with a conscience which she worshipped, and utterly unselfish. She appealed to Miss Taylor's ruddier and daintier vision but dimly and distantly as some memory of the past. The other teachers were indistinct personalities, always very busy and very tired, and talking "school-room" with their meals. Miss Taylor was soon starving for human companionship, for the lighter touches of life and some of its warmth and laughter. She wanted a glance of the new books and periodicals and talk of great philanthropies and reforms. She felt out of the world, shut in and mentally anaemic; great as the "Negro Problem" might be as a world problem, it looked sordid and small at close range. So for the hundredth time she was thinking today, as she walked alone up the lane back of the barn, and then slowly down through the bottoms. She paused a moment and nodded to the two boys at work in a young cotton field.
She paused. She remembered with what interest she had always read of this little thread of the world. She had almost forgotten that it was here within touch and sight. For a moment something of the vision of Cotton was mirrored in her mind. The glimmering sea of delicate leaves whispered and murmured before her, stretching away to the Northward. She remembered that beyond this little world it stretched on and on—how far she did not know—but on and on in a great trembling sea, and the foam of its mighty waters would one time flood the ends of the earth.
She glimpsed all this with parted lips, and then sighed impatiently. There might be a bit of poetry here and there, but most of this place was such desperate prose.
She glanced absently at the boys.
One was Bles Alwyn, a tall black lad. (Bles, she mused,—now who would think of naming a boy "Blessed," save these incomprehensible creatures!) Her regard shifted to the green stalks and leaves again, and she started to move away. Then her New England conscience stepped in. She ought not to pass these students without a word of encouragement or instruction.
"Cotton is a wonderful thing, is it not, boys?" she said rather primly. The boys touched their hats and murmured something indistinctly. Miss Taylor did not know much about cotton, but at least one more remark seemed called for.
"How long before the stalks will be ready to cut?" she asked carelessly. The farther boy coughed and Bles raised his eyes and looked at her; then after a pause he answered slowly. (Oh! these people were so slow—now a New England boy would have answered and asked a half-dozen questions in the time.)
"I—I don't know," he faltered.
"Don't know! Well, of all things!" inwardly commented Miss Taylor—"literally born in cotton, and—Oh, well," as much as to ask, "What's the use?" She turned again to go.
"What is planted over there?" she asked, although she really didn't care.
"Goobers," answered the smaller boy.
"Peanuts," Bles specified.
"Oh!" murmured Miss Taylor. "I see there are none on the vines yet. I suppose, though, it's too early for them."
Then came the explosion. The smaller boy just snorted with irrepressible laughter and bolted across the fields. And Bles—was Miss Taylor deceived?—or was he chuckling? She reddened, drew herself up, and then, dropping her primness, rippled with laughter.
"What is the matter, Bles?" she asked.
He looked at her with twinkling eyes.
"Well, you see, Miss Taylor, it's like this: farming don't seem to be your specialty."
The word was often on Miss Taylor's lips, and she recognized it. Despite herself she smiled again.
"Of course, it isn't—I don't know anything about farming. But what did I say so funny?"
Bles was now laughing outright.
"Why, Miss Taylor! I declare! Goobers don't grow on the tops of vines, but underground on the roots—like yams."
"Is that so?"
"Yes, and we—we don't pick cotton stalks except for kindling."
"I must have been thinking of hemp. But tell me more about cotton."
His eyes lighted, for cotton was to him a very real and beautiful thing, and a life-long companion, yet not one whose friendship had been coarsened and killed by heavy toil. He leaned against his hoe and talked half dreamily—where had he learned so well that dream-talk?
"We turn up the earth and sow it soon after Christmas. Then pretty soon there comes a sort of greenness on the black land and it swells and grows and, and—shivers. Then stalks shoot up with three or four leaves. That's the way it is now, see? After that we chop out the weak stalks, and the strong ones grow tall and dark, till I think it must be like the ocean—all green and billowy; then come little flecks here and there and the sea is all filled with flowers—flowers like little bells, blue and purple and white."
"Ah! that must be beautiful," sighed Miss Taylor, wistfully, sinking to the ground and clasping her hands about her knees.
"Yes, ma'am. But it's prettiest when the bolls come and swell and burst, and the cotton covers the field like foam, all misty—"
She bent wondering over the pale plants. The poetry of the thing began to sing within her, awakening her unpoetic imagination, and she murmured:
"The Golden Fleece—it's the Silver Fleece!"
"What's that?" he asked.
"Have you never heard of the Golden Fleece, Bles?"
"No, ma'am," he said eagerly; then glancing up toward the Cresswell fields, he saw two white men watching them. He grasped his hoe and started briskly to work.
"Some time you'll tell me, please, won't you?"
She glanced at her watch in surprise and arose hastily.
"Yes, with pleasure," she said moving away—at first very fast, and then more and more slowly up the lane, with a puzzled look on her face.
She began to realize that in this pleasant little chat the fact of the boy's color had quite escaped her; and what especially puzzled her was that this had not happened before. She had been here four months, and yet every moment up to now she seemed to have been vividly, almost painfully conscious, that she was a white woman talking to black folk. Now, for one little half-hour she had been a woman talking to a boy—no, not even that: she had been talking—just talking; there were no persons in the conversation, just things—one thing: Cotton.
She started thinking of cotton—but at once she pulled herself back to the other aspect. Always before she had been veiled from these folk: who had put the veil there? Had she herself hung it before her soul, or had they hidden timidly behind its other side? Or was it simply a brute fact, regardless of both of them?
The longer she thought, the more bewildered she grew. There seemed no analogy that she knew. Here was a unique thing, and she climbed to her bedroom and stared at the stars.
John Taylor had written to his sister. He wanted information, very definite information, about Tooms County cotton; about its stores, its people—especially its people. He propounded a dozen questions, sharp, searching questions, and he wanted the answers tomorrow. Impossible! thought Miss Taylor. He had calculated on her getting this letter yesterday, forgetting that their mail was fetched once a day from the town, four miles away. Then, too, she did not know all these matters and knew no one who did. Did John think she had nothing else to do? And sighing at the thought of to-morrow's drudgery, she determined to consult Miss Smith in the morning.
Miss Smith suggested a drive to town—Bles could take her in the top-buggy after school—and she could consult some of the merchants and business men. She could then write her letter and mail it there; it would be but a day or so late getting to New York.
"Of course," said Miss Smith drily, slowly folding her napkin, "of course, the only people here are the Cresswells."
"Oh, yes," said Miss Taylor invitingly. There was an allurement about this all-pervasive name; it held her by a growing fascination and she was anxious for the older woman to amplify. Miss Smith, however, remained provokingly silent, so Miss Taylor essayed further.
"What sort of people are the Cresswells?" she asked.
"The old man's a fool; the young one a rascal; the girl a ninny," was Miss Smith's succinct and acid classification of the county's first family; adding, as she rose, "but they own us body and soul." She hurried out of the dining-room without further remark. Miss Smith was more patient with black folk than with white.
The sun was hanging just above the tallest trees of the swamp when Miss Taylor, weary with the day's work, climbed into the buggy beside Bles. They wheeled comfortably down the road, leaving the sombre swamp, with its black-green, to the right, and heading toward the golden-green of waving cotton fields. Miss Taylor lay back, listlessly, and drank the soft warm air of the languorous Spring. She thought of the golden sheen of the cotton, and the cold March winds of New England; of her brother who apparently noted nothing of leaves and winds and seasons; and of the mighty Cresswells whom Miss Smith so evidently disliked. Suddenly she became aware of her long silence and the silence of the boy.
"Bles," she began didactically, "where are you from?"
He glanced across at her and answered shortly:
"Georgia, ma'am," and was silent.
The girl tried again.
"Georgia is a large State,"—tentatively.
"Are you going back there when you finish?"
"I don't know."
"I think you ought to—and work for your people."
She stopped, puzzled, and looked about. The old horse jogged lazily on, and Bles switched him unavailingly. Somehow she had missed the way today. The Veil hung thick, sombre, impenetrable. Well, she had done her duty, and slowly she nestled back and watched the far-off green and golden radiance of the cotton.
"Bles," she said impulsively, "shall I tell you of the Golden Fleece?"
He glanced at her again.
"Yes'm, please," he said.
She settled herself almost luxuriously, and began the story of Jason and the Argonauts.
The boy remained silent. And when she had finished, he still sat silent, elbow on knee, absently flicking the jogging horse and staring ahead at the horizon. She looked at him doubtfully with some disappointment that his hearing had apparently shared so little of the joy of her telling; and, too, there was mingled a vague sense of having lowered herself to too familiar fellowship with this—this boy. She straightened herself instinctively and thought of some remark that would restore proper relations. She had not found it before he said, slowly:
"All yon is Jason's."
"What?" she asked, puzzled.
He pointed with one sweep of his long arm to the quivering mass of green-gold foliage that swept from swamp to horizon.
"All yon golden fleece is Jason's now," he repeated.
"I thought it was—Cresswell's," she said.
"That's what I mean."
She suddenly understood that the story had sunk deeply.
"I am glad to hear you say that," she said methodically, "for Jason was a brave adventurer—"
"I thought he was a thief."
"Oh, well—those were other times."
"The Cresswells are thieves now."
Miss Taylor answered sharply.
"Bles, I am ashamed to hear you talk so of your neighbors simply because they are white."
But Bles continued.
"This is the Black Sea," he said, pointing to the dull cabins that crouched here and there upon the earth, with the dark twinkling of their black folk darting out to see the strangers ride by.
Despite herself Miss Taylor caught the allegory and half whispered, "Lo! the King himself!" as a black man almost rose from the tangled earth at their side. He was tall and thin and sombre-hued, with a carven face and thick gray hair.
"Your servant, mistress," he said, with a sweeping bow as he strode toward the swamp. Miss Taylor stopped him, for he looked interesting, and might answer some of her brother's questions. He turned back and stood regarding her with sorrowful eyes and ugly mouth.
"Do you live about here?" she asked.
"I'se lived here a hundred years," he answered. She did not believe it; he might be seventy, eighty, or even ninety—indeed, there was about him that indefinable sense of age—some shadow of endless living; but a hundred seemed absurd.
"You know the people pretty well, then?"
"I knows dem all. I knows most of 'em better dan dey knows demselves. I knows a heap of tings in dis world and in de next."
"This is a great cotton country?"
"Dey don't raise no cotton now to what dey used to when old Gen'rel Cresswell fust come from Carolina; den it was a bale and a half to the acre on stalks dat looked like young brushwood. Dat was cotton."
"You know the Cresswells, then?"
"Know dem? I knowed dem afore dey was born."
"They are—wealthy people?"
"Dey rolls in money and dey'se quality, too. No shoddy upstarts dem, but born to purple, lady, born to purple. Old Gen'ral Cresswell had niggers and acres no end back dere in Carolina. He brung a part of dem here and here his son, de father of dis Colonel Cresswell, was born. De son—I knowed him well—he had a tousand niggers and ten tousand acres afore de war."
"Were they kind to their slaves?"
"Oh, yaas, yaas, ma'am, dey was careful of de're niggers and wouldn't let de drivers whip 'em much."
"And these Cresswells today?"
"Oh, dey're quality—high-blooded folks—dey'se lost some land and niggers, but, lordy, nuttin' can buy de Cresswells, dey naturally owns de world."
"Are they honest and kind?"
"Oh, yaas, ma'am—dey'se good white folks."
"Good white folk?"
"Oh, yaas, ma'am—course you knows white folks will be white folks—white folks will be white folks. Your servant, ma'am." And the swamp swallowed him.
The boy's eyes followed him as he whipped up the horse.
"He's going to Elspeth's," he said.
"Who is he?"
"We just call him Old Pappy—he's a preacher, and some folks say a conjure man, too."
"And who is Elspeth?"
"She lives in the swamp—she's a kind of witch, I reckon, like—like—"
"Yes—only—I don't know—" and he grew thoughtful.
The road turned now and far away to the eastward rose the first straggling cabins of the town. Creeping toward them down the road rolled a dark squat figure. It grew and spread slowly on the horizon until it became a fat old black woman, hooded and aproned, with great round hips and massive bosom. Her face was heavy and homely until she looked up and lifted the drooping cheeks, and then kindly old eyes beamed on the young teacher, as she curtsied and cried:
"Good-evening, honey! Good-evening! You sure is pretty dis evening."
"Why, Aunt Rachel, how are you?" There was genuine pleasure in the girl's tone.
"Just tolerable, honey, bless de Lord! Rumatiz is kind o' bad and Aunt Rachel ain't so young as she use ter be."
"And what brings you to town afoot this time of day?"
The face fell again to dull care and the old eyes crept away. She fumbled with her cane.
"It's de boys again, honey," she returned solemnly; "dey'se good boys, dey is good to de're old mammy, but dey'se high strung and dey gits fighting and drinking and—and—last Saturday night dey got took up again. I'se been to Jedge Grey—I use to tote him on my knee, honey—I'se been to him to plead him not to let 'em go on de gang, 'cause you see, honey," and she stroked the girl's sleeve as if pleading with her, too, "you see it done ruins boys to put 'em on de gang."
Miss Taylor tried hard to think of something comforting to say, but words seemed inadequate to cheer the old soul; but after a few moments they rode on, leaving the kind face again beaming and dimpling.
And now the country town of Toomsville lifted itself above the cotton and corn, fringed with dirty straggling cabins of black folk. The road swung past the iron watering trough, turned sharply and, after passing two or three pert cottages and a stately house, old and faded, opened into the wide square. Here pulsed the very life and being of the land. Yonder great bales of cotton, yellow-white in its soiled sacking, piled in lofty, dusty mountains, lay listening for the train that, twice a day, ran out to the greater world. Round about, tied to the well-gnawed hitching rails, were rows of mules—mules with back cloths; mules with saddles; mules hitched to long wagons, buggies, and rickety gigs; mules munching golden ears of corn, and mules drooping their heads in sorrowful memory of better days.
Beyond the cotton warehouse smoked the chimneys of the seed-mill and the cotton-gin; a red livery-stable faced them and all about three sides of the square ran stores; big stores and small wide-windowed, narrow stores. Some had old steps above the worn clay side-walks, and some were flush with the ground. All had a general sense of dilapidation—save one, the largest and most imposing, a three-story brick. This was Caldwell's "Emporium"; and here Bles stopped and Miss Taylor entered.
Mr. Caldwell himself hurried forward; and the whole store, clerks and customers, stood at attention, for Miss Taylor was yet new to the county.
She bought a few trifles and then approached her main business.
"My brother wants some information about the county, Mr. Caldwell, and I am only a teacher, and do not know much about conditions here."
"Ah! where do you teach?" asked Mr. Caldwell. He was certain he knew the teachers of all the white schools in the county. Miss Taylor told him. He stiffened slightly but perceptibly, like a man clicking the buckles of his ready armor, and two townswomen who listened gradually turned their backs, but remained near.
"Yes—yes," he said, with uncomfortable haste. "Any—er—information—of course—" Miss Taylor got out her notes.
"The leading land-owners," she began, sorting the notes searchingly, "I should like to know something about them."
"Well, Colonel Cresswell is, of course, our greatest landlord—a high-bred gentleman of the old school. He and his son—a worthy successor to the name—hold some fifty thousand acres. They may be considered representative types. Then, Mr. Maxwell has ten thousand acres and Mr. Tolliver a thousand."
Miss Taylor wrote rapidly. "And cotton?" she asked.
"We raise considerable cotton, but not nearly what we ought to; nigger labor is too worthless."
"Oh! The Negroes are not, then, very efficient?"
"Efficient!" snorted Mr. Caldwell; at last she had broached a phase of the problem upon which he could dilate with fervor. "They're the lowest-down, ornriest—begging your pardon—good-for-nothing loafers you ever heard of. Why, we just have to carry them and care for them like children. Look yonder," he pointed across the square to the court-house. It was an old square brick-and-stucco building, sombre and stilted and very dirty. Out of it filed a stream of men—some black and shackled; some white and swaggering and liberal with tobacco-juice; some white and shaven and stiff. "Court's just out," pursued Mr. Caldwell, "and them niggers have just been sent to the gang—young ones, too; educated but good for nothing. They're all that way."
Miss Taylor looked up a little puzzled, and became aware of a battery of eyes and ears. Everybody seemed craning and listening, and she felt a sudden embarrassment and a sense of half-veiled hostility in the air. With one or two further perfunctory questions, and a hasty expression of thanks, she escaped into the air.
The whole square seemed loafing and lolling—the white world perched on stoops and chairs, in doorways and windows; the black world filtering down from doorways to side-walk and curb. The hot, dusty quadrangle stretched in dreary deadness toward the temple of the town, as if doing obeisance to the court-house. Down the courthouse steps the sheriff, with Winchester on shoulder, was bringing the last prisoner—a curly-headed boy with golden face and big brown frightened eyes.
"It's one of Dunn's boys," said Bles. "He's drunk again, and they say he's been stealing. I expect he was hungry." And they wheeled out of the square.
Miss Taylor was tired, and the hastily scribbled letter which she dropped into the post in passing was not as clearly expressed as she could wish.
A great-voiced giant, brown and bearded, drove past them, roaring a hymn. He greeted Bles with a comprehensive wave of the hand.
"I guess Tylor has been paid off," said Bles, but Miss Taylor was too disgusted to answer. Further on they overtook a tall young yellow boy walking awkwardly beside a handsome, bold-faced girl. Two white men came riding by. One leered at the girl, and she laughed back, while the yellow boy strode sullenly ahead. As the two white riders approached the buggy one said to the other:
"Who's that nigger with?"
"One of them nigger teachers."
"Well, they'll stop this damn riding around or they'll hear something," and they rode slowly by.
Miss Taylor felt rather than heard their words, and she was uncomfortable. The sun fell fast; the long shadows of the swamp swept soft coolness on the red road. Then afar in front a curled cloud of white dust arose and out of it came the sound of galloping horses.
"Who's this?" asked Miss Taylor.
"The Cresswells, I think; they usually ride to town about this time." But already Miss Taylor had descried the brown and tawny sides of the speeding horses.
"Good gracious!" she thought. "The Cresswells!" And with it came a sudden desire not to meet them—just then. She glanced toward the swamp. The sun was sifting blood-red lances through the trees. A little wagon-road entered the wood and disappeared. Miss Taylor saw it.
"Let's see the sunset in the swamp," she said suddenly. On came the galloping horses. Bles looked up in surprise, then silently turned into the swamp. The horses flew by, their hoof-beats dying in the distance. A dark green silence lay about them lit by mighty crimson glories beyond. Miss Taylor leaned back and watched it dreamily till a sense of oppression grew on her. The sun was sinking fast.
"Where does this road come out?" she asked at last.
"It doesn't come out."
"Where does it go?"
"It goes to Elspeth's."
"Why, we must turn back immediately. I thought—" But Bles was already turning. They were approaching the main road again when there came a fluttering as of a great bird beating its wings amid the forest. Then a girl, lithe, dark brown, and tall, leaped lightly into the path with greetings on her lips for Bles. At the sight of the lady she drew suddenly back and stood motionless regarding Miss Taylor, searching her with wide black liquid eyes. Miss Taylor was a little startled.
"Good—good-evening," she said, straightening herself.
The girl was still silent and the horse stopped. One tense moment pulsed through all the swamp. Then the girl, still motionless—still looking Miss Taylor through and through—said with slow deliberateness:
"I hates you."
The teacher in Miss Taylor strove to rebuke this unconventional greeting but the woman in her spoke first and asked almost before she knew it—
Zora, child of the swamp, was a heathen hoyden of twelve wayward, untrained years. Slight, straight, strong, full-blooded, she had dreamed her life away in wilful wandering through her dark and sombre kingdom until she was one with it in all its moods; mischievous, secretive, brooding; full of great and awful visions, steeped body and soul in wood-lore. Her home was out of doors, the cabin of Elspeth her port of call for talking and eating. She had not known, she had scarcely seen, a child of her own age until Bles Alwyn had fled from her dancing in the night, and she had searched and found him sleeping in the misty morning light. It was to her a strange new thing to see a fellow of like years with herself, and she gripped him to her soul in wild interest and new curiosity. Yet this childish friendship was so new and incomprehensible a thing to her that she did not know how to express it. At first she pounced upon him in mirthful, almost impish glee, teasing and mocking and half scaring him, despite his fifteen years of young manhood.
"Yes, they is devils down yonder behind the swamp," she would whisper, warningly, when, after the first meeting, he had crept back again and again, half fascinated, half amused to greet her; "I'se seen 'em, I'se heard 'em, 'cause my mammy is a witch."
The boy would sit and watch her wonderingly as she lay curled along the low branch of the mighty oak, clinging with little curved limbs and flying fingers. Possessed by the spirit of her vision, she would chant, low-voiced, tremulous, mischievous:
"One night a devil come to me on blue fire out of a big red flower that grows in the south swamp; he was tall and big and strong as anything, and when he spoke the trees shook and the stars fell. Even mammy was afeared; and it takes a lot to make mammy afeared, 'cause she's a witch and can conjure. He said, 'I'll come when you die—I'll come when you die, and take the conjure off you,' and then he went away on a big fire."
"Shucks!" the boy would say, trying to express scornful disbelief when, in truth, he was awed and doubtful. Always he would glance involuntarily back along the path behind him. Then her low birdlike laughter would rise and ring through the trees.
So passed a year, and there came the time when her wayward teasing and the almost painful thrill of her tale-telling nettled him and drove him away. For long months he did not meet her, until one day he saw her deep eyes fixed longingly upon him from a thicket in the swamp. He went and greeted her. But she said no word, sitting nested among the greenwood with passionate, proud silence, until he had sued long for peace; then in sudden new friendship she had taken his hand and led him through the swamp, showing him all the beauty of her swamp-world—great shadowy oaks and limpid pools, lone, naked trees and sweet flowers; the whispering and flitting of wild things, and the winging of furtive birds. She had dropped the impish mischief of her way, and up from beneath it rose a wistful, visionary tenderness; a mighty half-confessed, half-concealed, striving for unknown things. He seemed to have found a new friend.
And today, after he had taken Miss Taylor home and supped, he came out in the twilight under the new moon and whistled the tremulous note that always brought her.
"Why did you speak so to Miss Taylor?" he asked, reproachfully. She considered the matter a moment.
"You don't understand," she said. "You can't never understand. I can see right through people. You can't. You never had a witch for a mammy—did you?"
"Well, then, you see I have to take care of you and see things for you."
"Zora," he said thoughtfully, "you must learn to read."
"So that you can read books and know lots of things."
"Don't white folks make books?"
"Yes—most of the books."
"Pooh! I knows more than they do now—a heap more."
"In some ways you do; but they know things that give them power and wealth and make them rule."
"No, no. They don't really rule; they just thinks they rule. They just got things—heavy, dead things. We black folks is got the spirit. We'se lighter and cunninger; we fly right through them; we go and come again just as we wants to. Black folks is wonderful."
He did not understand what she meant; but he knew what he wanted and he tried again.
"Even if white folks don't know everything they know different things from us, and we ought to know what they know."
This appealed to her somewhat.
"I don't believe they know much," she concluded; "but I'll learn to read and just see."
"It will be hard work," he warned. But he had come prepared for acquiescence. He took a primer from his pocket and, lighting a match, showed her the alphabet.
"Learn those," he said.
"What for?" she asked, looking at the letters disdainfully.
"Because that's the way," he said, as the light flared and went out.
"I don't believe it," she disputed, disappearing in the wood and returning with a pine-knot. They lighted it and its smoky flame threw wavering shadows about. She turned the leaves till she came to a picture which she studied intently.
"Is this about this?" she asked, pointing alternately to reading and picture.
"Yes. And if you learn—"
"Read it," she commanded. He read the page.
"Again," she said, making him point out each word. Then she read it after him, accurately, with more perfect expression. He stared at her. She took the book, and with a nod was gone.
It was Saturday and dark. She never asked Bles to her home—to that mysterious black cabin in mid-swamp. He thought her ashamed of it, and delicately refrained from going. So tonight she slipped away, stopped and listened till she heard his footsteps on the pike, and then flew homeward. Presently the old black cabin loomed before her with its wide flapping door. The old woman was bending over the fire, stirring some savory mess, and a yellow girl with a white baby on one arm was placing dishes on a rickety wooden table when Zora suddenly and noiselessly entered the door.
"Come, is you? I 'lowed victuals would fetch you," grumbled the hag.
But Zora deigned no answer. She walked placidly to the table, where she took up a handful of cold corn-bread and meat, and then went over and curled up by the fire.
Elspeth and the girl talked and laughed coarsely, and the night wore on.
By and by loud laughter and tramping came from the road—a sound of numerous footsteps. Zora listened, leapt to her feet and started to the door. The old crone threw an epithet after her; but she flashed through the lighted doorway and was gone, followed by the oath and shouts from the approaching men. In the hut night fled with wild song and revel, and day dawned again. Out from some fastness of the wood crept Zora. She stopped and bathed in a pool, and combed her close-clung hair, then entered silently to breakfast.
Thus began in the dark swamp that primal battle with the Word. She hated it and despised it, but her pride was in arms and her one great life friendship in the balance. She fought her way with a dogged persistence that brought word after word of praise and interest from Bles. Then, once well begun, her busy, eager mind flew with a rapidity that startled; the stories especially she devoured—tales of strange things and countries and men gripped her imagination and clung to her memory.
"Didn't I tell you there was lots to learn?" he asked once.
"I knew it all," she retorted; "every bit. I'se thought it all before; only the little things is different—and I like the little, strange things."
Spring ripened to summer. She was reading well and writing some.
"Zora," he announced one morning under their forest oak, "you must go to school."
She eyed him, surprised.
"You've found some things worth knowing in this world, haven't you, Zora?"
"Yes," she admitted.
"But there are more—many, many more—worlds on worlds of things—you have not dreamed of."
She stared at him, open-eyed, and a wonder crept upon her face battling with the old assurance. Then she looked down at her bare brown feet and torn gown.
"I've got a little money, Zora," he said quickly.
But she lifted her head.
"I'll earn mine," she said.
"How?" he asked doubtfully.
"I'll pick cotton."
"Course I can."
"It's hard work."
"I don't like to work," she mused. "You see, mammy's pappy was a king's son, and kings don't work. I don't work; mostly I dreams. But I can work, and I will—for the wonder things—and for you."
So the summer yellowed and silvered into fall. All the vacation days Bles worked on the farm, and Zora read and dreamed and studied in the wood, until the land lay white with harvest. Then, without warning, she appeared in the cotton-field beside Bles, and picked.
It was hot, sore work. The sun blazed; her bent and untrained back pained, and the soft little hands bled. But no complaint passed her lips; her hands never wavered, and her eyes met his steadily and gravely. She bade him good-night, cheerily, and then stole away to the wood, crouching beneath the great oak, and biting back the groans that trembled on her lips. Often, she fell supperless to sleep, with two great tears creeping down her tired cheeks.
When school-time came there was not yet money enough, for cotton-picking was not far advanced. Yet Zora would take no money from Bles, and worked earnestly away.
Meantime there occurred to the boy the momentous question of clothes. Had Zora thought of them? He feared not. She knew little of clothes and cared less. So one day in town he dropped into Caldwell's "Emporium" and glanced hesitantly at certain ready-made dresses. One caught his eye. It came from the great Easterly mills in New England and was red—a vivid red. The glowing warmth of this cloth of cotton caught the eye of Bles, and he bought the gown for a dollar and a half.
He carried it to Zora in the wood, and unrolled it before her eyes that danced with glad tears. Of course, it was long and wide; but he fetched needle and thread and scissors, too. It was a full month after school had begun when they, together back in the swamp, shadowed by the foliage, began to fashion the wonderful garment. At the same time she laid ten dollars of her first hard-earned money in his hands.
"You can finish the first year with this money," Bles assured her, delighted, "and then next year you must come in to board; because, you see, when you're educated you won't want to live in the swamp."
"I wants to live here always."
"But not at Elspeth's."
"No-o—not there, not there." And a troubled questioning trembled in her eyes, but brought no answering thought in his, for he was busy with his plans.
"Then, you see, Zora, if you stay here you'll need a new house, and you'll want to learn how to make it beautiful."
"Yes, a beautiful, great castle here in the swamp," she dreamed; "but," and her face fell, "I can't get money enough to board in; and I don't want to board in—I wants to be free."
He looked at her, curled down so earnestly at her puzzling task, and a pity for the more than motherless child swept over him. He bent over her, nervously, eagerly, and she laid down her sewing and sat silent and passive with dark, burning eyes.
"Zora," he said, "I want you to do all this—for me."
"I will, if you wants me to," she said quietly, but with something in her voice that made him look half startled into her beautiful eyes and feel a queer flushing in his face. He stretched his hand out and taking hers held it lightly till she quivered and drew away, bending again over her sewing.
Then a nameless exaltation rose within his heart.
"Zora," he whispered, "I've got a plan."
"What is it?" she asked, still with bowed head.
"Listen, till I tell you of the Golden Fleece."
Then she too heard the story of Jason. Breathless she listened, dropping her sewing and leaning forward, eager-eyed. Then her face clouded.
"Do you s'pose mammy's the witch?" she asked dubiously.
"No; she wouldn't give her own flesh and blood to help the thieving Jason."
She looked at him searchingly.
"Yes, she would, too," affirmed the girl, and then she paused, still intently watching him. She was troubled, and again a question eagerly hovered on her lips. But he continued:
"Then we must escape her," he said gayly. "See! yonder lies the Silver Fleece spread across the brown back of the world; let's get a bit of it, and hide it here in the swamp, and comb it, and tend it, and make it the beautifullest bit of all. Then we can sell it, and send you to school."
She sat silently bent forward, turning the picture in her mind. Suddenly forgetting her trouble, she bubbled with laughter, and leaping up clapped her hands.
"And I knows just the place!" she cried eagerly, looking at him with a flash of the old teasing mischief—"down in the heart of the swamp—where dreams and devils lives."
* * * * *
Up at the school-house Miss Taylor was musing. She had been invited to spend the summer with Mrs. Grey at Lake George, and such a summer!—silken clothes and dainty food, motoring and golf, well-groomed men and elegant women. She would not have put it in just that way, but the vision came very close to spelling heaven to her mind. Not that she would come to it vacant-minded, but rather as a trained woman, starved for companionship and wanting something of the beauty and ease of life. She sat dreaming of it here with rows of dark faces before her, and the singsong wail of a little black reader with his head aslant and his patched kneepants.
The day was warm and languorous, and the last pale mist of the Silver Fleece peeped in at the windows. She tried to follow the third-reader lesson with her finger, but persistently off she went, dreaming, to some exquisite little parlor with its green and gold, the clink of dainty china and hum of low voices, and the blue lake in the window; she would glance up, the door would open softly and—
Just here she did glance up, and all the school glanced with her. The drone of the reader hushed. The door opened softly, and upon the threshold stood Zora. Her small feet and slender ankles were black and bare; her dark, round, and broad-browed head and strangely beautiful face were poised almost defiantly, crowned with a misty mass of waveless hair, and lit by the velvet radiance of two wonderful eyes. And hanging from shoulder to ankle, in formless, clinging folds, blazed the scarlet gown.
The cry of the naked was sweeping the world. From the peasant toiling in Russia, the lady lolling in London, the chieftain burning in Africa, and the Esquimaux freezing in Alaska; from long lines of hungry men, from patient sad-eyed women, from old folk and creeping children went up the cry, "Clothes, clothes!" Far away the wide black land that belts the South, where Miss Smith worked and Miss Taylor drudged and Bles and Zora dreamed, the dense black land sensed the cry and heard the bound of answering life within the vast dark breast. All that dark earth heaved in mighty travail with the bursting bolls of the cotton while black attendant earth spirits swarmed above, sweating and crooning to its birth pains.
After the miracle of the bursting bolls, when the land was brightest with the piled mist of the Fleece, and when the cry of the naked was loudest in the mouths of men, a sudden cloud of workers swarmed between the Cotton and the Naked, spinning and weaving and sewing and carrying the Fleece and mining and minting and bringing the Silver till the Song of Service filled the world and the poetry of Toil was in the souls of the laborers. Yet ever and always there were tense silent white-faced men moving in that swarm who felt no poetry and heard no song, and one of these was John Taylor.
He was tall, thin, cold, and tireless and he moved among the Watchers of this World of Trade. In the rich Wall Street offices of Grey and Easterly, Brokers, Mr. Taylor, as chief and confidential clerk surveyed the world's nakedness and the supply of cotton to clothe it. The object of his watching was frankly stated to himself and to his world. He purposed going into business neither for his own health nor for the healing or clothing of the peoples but to apply his knowledge of the world's nakedness and of black men's toil in such a way as to bring himself wealth. In this he was but following the teaching of his highest ideal, lately deceased, Mr. Job Grey. Mr. Grey had so successfully manipulated the cotton market that while black men who made the cotton starved in Alabama and white men who bought it froze in Siberia, he himself sat—
"High on a throne of royal state That far outshone the wealth Of Ormuz or of Ind."
Notwithstanding this he died eventually, leaving the burden of his wealth to his bewildered wife, and his business to the astute Mr. Easterly; not simply to Mr. Easterly, but in a sense to his spiritual heir, John Taylor.
To be sure Mr. Taylor had but a modest salary and no financial interest in the business, but he had knowledge and business daring—effrontery even—and the determination was fixed in his mind to be a millionaire at no distant date. Some cautious fliers on the market gave him enough surplus to send his sister Mary through the high school of his country home in New Hampshire, and afterward through Wellesley College; although just why a woman should want to go through college was inexplicable to John Taylor, and he was still uncertain as to the wisdom of his charity.
When she had an offer to teach in the South, John Taylor hurried her off for two reasons: he was profoundly interested in the cotton-belt, and there she might be of service to him; and secondly, he had spent all the money on her that he intended to at present, and he wanted her to go to work. As an investment he did not consider Mary a success. Her letters intimated very strongly her intention not to return to Miss Smith's School; but they also brought information—disjointed and incomplete, to be sure—which mightily interested Mr. Taylor and sent him to atlases, encyclopaedias, and census-reports. When he went to that little lunch with old Mrs. Grey he was not sure that he wanted his sister to leave the cotton-belt just yet. After lunch he was sure that he did not want her to leave.
The rich Mrs. Grey was at the crisis of her fortunes. She was an elderly lady, in those uncertain years beyond fifty, and had been left suddenly with more millions than she could easily count. Personally she was inclined to spend her money in bettering the world right off, in such ways as might from time to time seem attractive. This course, to her husband's former partner and present executor, Mr. Edward Easterly, was not only foolish but wicked, and, incidentally, distinctly unprofitable to him. He had expressed himself strongly to Mrs. Grey last night at dinner and had reinforced his argument by a pointed letter written this morning.
To John Taylor Mrs. Grey's disposal of the income was unbelievable blasphemy against the memory of a mighty man. He did not put this in words to Mrs. Grey—he was only head clerk in her late husband's office—but he became watchful and thoughtful. He ate his soup in silence when she descanted on various benevolent schemes.
"Now, what do you know," she asked finally, "about Negroes—about educating them?" Mr. Taylor over his fish was about to deny all knowledge of any sort on the subject, but all at once he recollected his sister, and a sudden gleam of light radiated his mental gloom.
"Have a sister who is—er—devoting herself to teaching them," he said.
"Is that so!" cried Mrs. Grey, joyfully. "Where is she?"
"In Tooms County, Alabama—in—" Mr. Taylor consulted a remote mental pocket—"in Miss Sara Smith's school."
"Why, how fortunate! I'm so glad I mentioned the matter. You see, Miss Smith is a sister of a friend of ours, Congressman Smith of New Jersey, and she has just written to me for help; a very touching letter, too, about the poor blacks. My father set great store by blacks and was a leading abolitionist before he died."
Mr. Taylor was thinking fast. Yes, the name of Congressman Peter Smith was quite familiar. Mr. Easterly, as chairman of the Republican State Committee of New Jersey, had been compelled to discipline Mr. Smith pretty severely for certain socialistic votes in the House, and consequently his future career was uncertain. It was important that such a man should not have too much to do with Mrs. Grey's philanthropies—at least, in his present position.
"Should like to have you meet and talk with my sister, Mrs. Grey; she's a Wellesley graduate," said Taylor, finally.
Mrs. Grey was delighted. It was a combination which she felt she needed. Here was a college-girl who could direct her philanthropies and her etiquette during the summer. Forthwith Mary Taylor received an intimation from her brother that vast interests depended on her summer vacation.
Thus it had happened that Miss Taylor came to Lake George for her vacation after the first year at the Smith School, and she and Miss Smith had silently agreed as she left that it would be better for her not to return. But the gods of lower Broadway thought otherwise. Not that Mary Taylor did not believe in Miss Smith's work, she was too honest not to believe in education; but she was sure that this was not her work, and she had not as yet perfected in her own mind any theory of the world into which black folk fitted. She was rather taken back, therefore, to be regarded as an expert on the problem. First her brother attacked her, not simply on cotton, but, to her great surprise, on Negro education; and after listening to her halting uncertain remarks, he suggested to her certain matters which it would be better for her to believe when Mrs. Grey talked to her.
"Interested in darkies, you see," he concluded, "and looks to you to tell things. Better go easy and suggest a waiting-game before she goes in heavy."
"But Miss Smith needs money—" the New England conscience prompted. John Taylor cut in sharply:
"We all need money, and I know people who need Mrs. Grey's more than Miss Smith does at present."
Miss Taylor found the Lake George colony charming. It was not ultra-fashionable, but it had wealth and leisure and some breeding. Especially was this true of a circumscribed, rather exclusive, set which centred around the Vanderpools of New York and Boston. They, or rather Mr. Vanderpool's connections, were of Old Dutch New York stock; his father it was who had built the Lake George cottage.
Mrs. Vanderpool was a Wells of Boston, and endured Lake George now and then during the summer for her husband's sake, although she regarded it all as rather a joke. This summer promised to be unusually lonesome for her, and she was meditating a retreat to the Massachusetts north shore when she chanced to meet Mary Taylor, at a miscellaneous dinner, and found her interesting. She discovered that this young woman knew things, that she could talk books, and that she was rather pretty. To be sure she knew no people, but Mrs. Vanderpool knew enough to even things.
"By the bye, I met some charming Alabama people last winter, in Montgomery—the Cresswells; do you know them?" she asked one day, as they were lounging in wicker chairs on the Vanderpool porch. Then she answered the query herself: "No, of course you could not. It is too bad that your work deprives you of the society of people of your class. Now my ideal is a set of Negro schools where the white teachers could know the Cresswells."
"Why, yes—" faltered Miss Taylor; "but—wouldn't that be difficult?"
"Why should it be?"
"I mean, would the Cresswells approve of educating Negroes?"
"Oh, 'educating'! The word conceals so much. Now, I take it the Cresswells would object to instructing them in French and in dinner etiquette and tea-gowns, and so, in fact, would I; but teach them how to handle a hoe and to sew and cook. I have reason to know that people like the Cresswells would be delighted."
"And with the teachers of it?"
"Why not?—provided, of course, they were—well, gentlefolk and associated accordingly."
"But one must associate with one's pupils."
"Oh, certainly, certainly; just as one must associate with one's maids and chauffeurs and dressmakers—cordially and kindly, but with a difference."
"But—but, dear Mrs. Vanderpool, you wouldn't want your children trained that way, would you?"
"Certainly not, my dear. But these are not my children, they are the children of Negroes; we can't quite forget that, can we?"
"No, I suppose not," Miss Taylor admitted, a little helplessly. "But—it seems to me—that's the modern idea of taking culture to the masses."
"Frankly, then, the modern idea is not my idea; it is too socialistic. And as for culture applied to the masses, you utter a paradox. The masses and work is the truth one must face."
"And culture and work?"
"Quite incompatible, I assure you, my dear." She stretched her silken limbs, lazily, while Miss Taylor sat silently staring at the waters.
Just then Mrs. Grey drove up in her new red motor.
Up to the time of Mary Taylor's arrival the acquaintance of the Vanderpools and Mrs. Grey had been a matter chiefly of smiling bows. After Miss Taylor came there had been calls and casual intercourse, to Mrs. Grey's great gratification and Mrs. Vanderpool's mingled amusement and annoyance. Mrs. Grey announced the arrival of the Easterlys and John Taylor for the week-end. As Mrs. Vanderpool could think of nothing less boring, she consented to dine.
The atmosphere of Mrs. Grey's ornate cottage was different from that of the Vanderpools. The display of wealth and splendor had a touch of the barbaric. Mary Taylor liked it, although she found the Vanderpool atmosphere more subtly satisfying. There was a certain grim power beneath the Greys' mahogany and velvets that thrilled while it appalled. Precisely that side of the thing appealed to her brother. He would have seen little or nothing in the plain elegance yonder, while here he saw a Japanese vase that cost no cent less than a thousand dollars. He meant to be able to duplicate it some day. He knew that Grey was poor and less knowing than he sixty years ago.
The dead millionaire had begun his fortune by buying and selling cotton—travelling in the South in reconstruction times, and sending his agents. In this way he made his thousands. Then he took a step forward, and instead of following the prices induced the prices to follow him. Two or three small cotton corners brought him his tens of thousands. About this time Easterly joined him and pointed out a new road—the buying and selling of stock in various cotton-mills and other industrial enterprises. Grey hesitated, but Easterly pushed him on and he made his hundreds of thousands. Then Easterly proposed buying controlling interests in certain large mills and gradually consolidating them. The plan grew and succeeded, and Grey made his millions.
Then Grey stopped; he had money enough, and he would venture no farther. He "was going to retire and eat peanuts," he said with a chuckle.
Easterly was disgusted. He, too, had made millions—not as many as Grey, but a few. It was not, however, simply money that he wanted, but power. The lust of financial dominion had gripped his soul, and he had a vision of a vast trust of cotton manufacturing covering the land. He talked this incessantly into Grey, but Grey continued to shake his head; the thing was too big for his imagination. He was bent on retiring, and just as he had set the date a year hence he inadvertently died. On the whole, Mr. Easterly was glad of his partner's definite withdrawal, since he left his capital behind him, until he found his vast plans about to be circumvented by Mrs. Grey withdrawing this capital from his control. "To give to the niggers and Chinamen," he snorted to John Taylor, and strode up and down the veranda. John Taylor removed his coat, lighted a black cigar, and elevated his heels. The ladies were in the parlor, where the female Easterlys were prostrating themselves before Mrs. Vanderpool.
"Just what is your plan?" asked Taylor, quite as if he did not know.
"Why, man, the transfer of a hundred millions of stock would give me control of the cotton-mills of America. Think of it!—the biggest trust next to steel."
"Why not bigger?" asked Taylor, imperturbably puffing away. Mr. Easterly eyed him. He had regarded Taylor hitherto as a very valuable asset to the business—had relied on his knowledge of routine, his judgment and his honesty; but he detected tonight a new tone in his clerk, something almost authoritative and self-reliant. He paused and smiled at him.
But John Taylor was dead in earnest. He did not smile.
"First, there's England—and all Europe; why not bring them into the trust?"
"Possibly, later; but first, America. Of course, I've got my eyes on the European situation and feelers out; but such matters are more difficult and slower of adjustment over there—so damned much law and gospel."
"But there's another side."
"You are planning to combine and control the manufacture of cotton—"
"But how about your raw material? The steel trust owns its iron mines."
"Of course—mines could be monopolized and hold the trust up; but our raw material is perfectly safe—farms growing smaller, farms isolated, and we fixing the price. It's a cinch."
"Are you sure?" Taylor surveyed him with a narrowed look.
"I'm not. I've been looking up things, and there are three points you'd better study: First, cotton farms are not getting smaller; they're getting bigger almighty fast, and there's a big cotton-land monopoly in sight. Second, the banks and wholesale houses in the South can control the cotton output if they work together. Third, watch the Southern 'Farmers' League' of big landlords."
Mr. Easterly threw away his cigar and sat down. Taylor straightened up, switched on the porch light, and took a bundle of papers from his coat pocket.
"Here are census figures," he said, "commercial reports and letters." They pored over them a half hour. Then Easterly arose.
"There's something in it," he admitted, "but what can we do? What do you propose?"
"Monopolize the growth as well as the manufacture of cotton, and use the first to club European manufacturers into submission."
Easterly stared at him.
"Good Lord!" he ejaculated; "you're crazy!"
But Taylor smiled a slow, thin smile, and put away his papers. Easterly continued to stare at his subordinate with a sort of fascination, with the awe that one feels when genius unexpectedly reveals itself from a source hitherto regarded as entirely ordinary. At last he drew a long breath, remarking indefinitely:
"I'll think it over."
A stir in the parlor indicated departure.
"Well, you watch the Farmers' League, and note its success and methods," counselled John Taylor, his tone and manner unchanged. "Then figure what it might do in the hands of—let us say, friends."
"Who's running it?"
"A Colonel Cresswell is its head, and happens also to be the force behind it. Aristocratic family—big planter—near where my sister teaches."
"H'm—well, we'll watch him."
"And say," as Easterly was turning away, "you know Congressman Smith?"
"I should say I did."
"Well, Mrs. Grey seems to be depending on him for advice in distributing some of her charity funds."
Easterly appeared startled.
"She is, is she!" he exclaimed. "But here come the ladies." He went forward at once, but John Taylor drew back. He noted Mrs. Vanderpool, and thought her too thin and pale. The dashing young Miss Easterly was more to his taste. He intended to have a wife like that one of these days.
"Mary," said he to his sister as he finally rose to go, "tell me about the Cresswells."
Mary explained to him at length the impossibility of her knowing much about the local white aristocracy of Tooms County, and then told him all she had heard.
"Mrs. Grey talked to you much?"
"About darky schools?"
"What does she intend to do?"
"I think she will aid Miss Smith first."
"Did you suggest anything?"
"Well, I told her what I thought about cooeperating with the local white people."
"Yes—you see Mrs. Vanderpool knows the Cresswells."
"Does, eh? Good! Say, that's a good point. You just bear heavy on it—cooeperate with the Cresswells."
"Why, yes. But—you see, John, I don't just know whether one could cooeperate with the Cresswells or not—one hears such contradictory stories of them. But there must be some other white people—"
"Stuff! It's the Cresswells we want."
"Well," Mary was very dubious, "they are—the most important."
THE PLACE OF DREAMS
When she went South late in September, Mary Taylor had two definite but allied objects: she was to get all possible business information concerning the Cresswells, and she was to induce Miss Smith to prepare for Mrs. Grey's benevolence by interesting the local whites in her work. The programme attracted Miss Taylor. She felt in touch, even if dimly and slightly, with great industrial movements, and she felt, too, like a discerning pioneer in philanthropy. Both roles she liked. Besides, they held, each, certain promises of social prestige; and society, Miss Taylor argued, one must have even in Alabama.
Bles Alwyn met her at the train. He was growing to be a big fine bronze giant, and Mary was glad to see him. She especially tried, in the first few weeks of opening school, to glean as much information as possible concerning the community, and particularly the Cresswells. She found the Negro youth quicker, surer, and more intelligent in his answers than those she questioned elsewhere, and she gained real enjoyment from her long talks with him.
"Isn't Bles developing splendidly?" she said to Miss Smith one afternoon. There was an unmistakable note of enthusiasm in her voice. Miss Smith slowly closed her letter-file but did not look up.
"Yes," she said crisply. "He's eighteen now—quite a man."
"And most interesting to talk with."
"H'm—very"—drily. Mary was busy with her own thoughts, and she did not notice the other woman's manner.
"Do you know," she pursued, "I'm a little afraid of one thing."
"So am I."
"Oh, you've noted it, too?—his friendship for that impossible girl, Zora?"
Miss Smith gave her a searching look.
"What of it?" she demanded.
"She is so far beneath him."
"She is a bold, godless thing; I don't understand her."
"The two are not quite the same."
"Of course not; but she is unnaturally forward."
"Too bright," Miss Smith amplified.
"Yes; she knows quite too much. You surely remember that awful scarlet dress? Well, all her clothes have arrived, or remained, at a simplicity and vividness that is—well—immodest."
"Does she think them immodest?"
"What she thinks is a problem."
"The problem, you mean?"
They paused a moment. Then Miss Smith said slowly: "What I don't understand, I don't judge."
"No, but you can't always help seeing and meeting it," laughed Miss Taylor.
"Certainly not. I don't try; I court the meeting and seeing. It is the only way."
"Well, perhaps, for us—but not for a boy like Bles, and a girl like Zora."
"True; men and women must exercise judgment in their intercourse and"—she glanced sharply at Miss Taylor—"my dear, you yourself must not forget that Bles Alwyn is a man."
Far up the road came a low, long, musical shouting; then with creaking and straining of wagons, four great black mules dashed into sight with twelve bursting bales of yellowish cotton looming and swaying behind. The drivers and helpers were lolling and laughing and singing, but Miss Taylor did not hear nor see. She had sat suddenly upright; her face had flamed crimson, and then went dead white.
"Miss—Miss Smith!" she gasped, overwhelmed with dismay, a picture of wounded pride and consternation.
Miss Smith turned around very methodically and took her hand; but while she spoke the girl merely stared at her in stony silence.
"Now, dear, don't mean more than I do. I'm an old woman, and I've seen many things. This is but a little corner of the world, and yet many people pass here in thirty years. The trouble with new teachers who come is, that like you, they cannot see black folk as human. All to them are either impossible Zoras, or else lovable Blessings. They forget that Zora is not to be annihilated, but studied and understood, and that Bles is a young man of eighteen and not a clod."
"But that he should dare—" Mary began breathlessly.
"He hasn't dared," Miss Smith went gently on. "No thought of you but as a teacher has yet entered his dear, simple head. But, my point is simply this: he's a man, and a human one, and if you keep on making much over him, and talking to him and petting him, he'll have the right to interpret your manner in his own way—the same that any young man would."
"But—but, he's a—a—"
"A Negro. To be sure, he is; and a man in addition. Now, dear, don't take this too much to heart; this is not a rebuke, but a clumsy warning. I am simply trying to make clear to you why you should be careful. Treat poor Zora a little more lovingly, and Bles a little less warmly. They are just human—but, oh! so human."
Mary Taylor rose up stiffly and mumbled a brief good-night. She went to her room, and sat down in the dark. The mere mention of the thing was to her so preposterous—no, loathsome, she kept repeating.
She slowly undressed in the dark, and heard the rumbling of the cotton wagons as they swayed toward town. The cry of the Naked was sweeping the world, and yonder in the night black men were answering the call. They knew not what or why they answered, but obeyed the irresistible call, with hearts light and song upon their lips—the Song of Service. They lashed their mules and drank their whiskey, and all night the piled fleece swept by Mary Taylor's window, flying—flying to that far cry. Miss Taylor turned uneasily in her bed and jerked the bed-clothes about her ears.
"Mrs. Vanderpool is right," she confided to the night, with something of the awe with which one suddenly comprehends a hidden oracle; "there must be a difference, always, always! That impudent Negro!"
All night she dreamed, and all day,—especially when trim and immaculate she sat in her chair and looked down upon fifty dark faces—and upon Zora.
Zora sat thinking. She saw neither Miss Taylor nor the long straight rows of desks and faces. She heard neither the drone of the spellers nor did she hear Miss Taylor say, "Zora!" She heard and saw none of this. She only heard the prattle of the birds in the wood, far down where the Silver Fleece would be planted.
For the time of cotton-planting was coming; the gray and drizzle of December was past and the hesitation, of January. Already a certain warmth and glow had stolen into the air, and the Swamp was calling its child with low, seductive voice. She knew where the first leaves were bursting, where tiny flowers nestled, and where young living things looked upward to the light and cried and crawled. A wistful longing was stealing into her heart. She wanted to be free. She wanted to run and dance and sing, but Bles wanted—
This time she heard the call, but did not heed it. Miss Taylor was very tiresome, and was forever doing and saying silly things. So Zora paid no attention, but sat still and thought. Yes, she would show Bles the place that very night; she had kept it secret from him until now, out of perverseness, out of her love of mystery and secrets. But tonight, after school, when he met her on the big road with the clothes, she would take him and show him the chosen spot.
Soon she was aware that school had been dismissed, and she leisurely gathered up her books and rose. Mary Taylor regarded her in perplexed despair. Oh, these people! Mrs. Vanderpool was right: culture and—some masses, at least—were not to be linked; and, too, culture and work—were they incompatible? At any rate, culture and this work were.
Now, there was Mrs. Vanderpool—she toiled not, neither did she spin, and yet! If all these folk were like poor, stupid, docile Jennie it would be simpler, but what earthly sense was there in trying do to anything with a girl like Zora, so stupid in some matters, so startlingly bright in others, and so stubborn in everything? Here, she was doing some work twice as well and twice as fast as the class, and other work she would not touch because she "didn't like it." Her classification in school was nearly as difficult as her classification in the world, and Miss Taylor reached up impatiently and removed the gold pin from her stock to adjust it more comfortably when Zora sauntered past unseeing, unheeding, with that curious gliding walk which Miss Taylor called stealthy. She laid the pin on the desk and on sudden impulse spoke again to the girl as she arranged her neck trimmings.
"Zora," she said evenly, "why didn't you come to class when I called?"
"I didn't hear you," said Zora, looking at her full-eyed and telling the half-truth easily.
Miss Taylor was sure Zora was lying, and she knew that she had lied to her on other occasions. Indeed, she had found lying customary in this community, and she had a New England horror of it. She looked at Zora disapprovingly, while Zora looked at her quite impersonally, but steadily. Then Miss Taylor braced herself, mentally, and took the war into Africa.
"Do you ever tell lies, Zora?"
"Don't you know that is a wicked, bad habit?"
"Because God hates them."
"How does you know He does?" Zora's tone was still impersonal.
"He hates all evil."
"But why is lies evil?"
"Because they make us deceive each other."
"Is that wrong?"
Zora bent forward and looked squarely into Miss Taylor's blue eyes. Miss Taylor looked into the velvet blackness of hers and wondered what they veiled.
"Is it wrong," asked Zora, "to make believe you likes people when you don't, when you'se afeared of them and thinks they may rub off and dirty you?"
"Why—why—yes, if you—if you, deceive."
"Then you lies sometimes, don't you?"
Miss Taylor stared helplessly at the solemn eyes that seemed to look so deeply into her.
"Perhaps—I do, Zora; I'm sure I don't mean to, and—I hope God will forgive me."
"Oh, I reckon He will if He's a good God, because He'd know that lies like that are heaps better than blabbing the truth right out. Only," she added severely, "you mustn't keep saying it's wicked to lie 'cause it ain't. Sometimes I lies," she reflected pensively, "and sometimes I don't—it depends."
Miss Taylor forgot her collar, and fingered the pin on the desk. She felt at once a desperate desire to know this girl better and to establish her own authority. Yet how should she do it? She kept toying with the pin, and Zora watched her. Then Miss Taylor said, absently:
"Zora, what do you propose to do when you grow up?"
"Think and walk—and rest," she concluded.
"I mean, what work?"
"Work? Oh, I sha'n't work. I don't like work—do you?"
Miss Taylor winced, wondering if the girl were lying again. She said quickly:
"Why, yes—that is, I like some kinds of work."
But Miss Taylor refused to have the matter made personal, as Zora had a disconcerting way of pointing all their discussions.
"Everybody likes some kinds of work," she insisted.
"If you likes it, it ain't work," declared Zora; but Mary Taylor proceeded around her circumscribed circle:
"You might make a good cook, or a maid."
"I hate cooking. What's a maid?"
"Why, a woman who helps others."
"Helps folks that they love? I'd like that."
"It is not a question of affection," said Miss Taylor, firmly: "one is paid for it."
"I wouldn't work for pay."
"But you'll have to, child; you'll have to earn a living."
"Do you work for pay?"
"I work to earn a living."
"Same thing, I reckon, and it ain't true. Living just comes free, like—like sunshine."
"Stuff! Zora, your people must learn to work and work steadily and work hard—" She stopped, for she was sure Zora was not listening; the far away look was in her eyes and they were shining. She was beautiful as she stood there—strangely, almost uncannily, but startlingly beautiful with her rich dark skin, softly moulded features, and wonderful eyes.
"My people?—my people?" she murmured, half to herself. "Do you know my people? They don't never work; they plays. They is all little, funny dark people. They flies and creeps and crawls, slippery-like; and they cries and calls. Ah, my people! my poor little people! they misses me these days, because they is shadowy things that sing and smell and bloom in dark and terrible nights—"
Miss Taylor started up. "Zora, I believe you're crazy!" she cried. But Zora was looking at her calmly again.
"We'se both crazy, ain't we?" she returned, with a simplicity that left the teacher helpless.
Miss Taylor hurried out, forgetting her pin. Zora looked it over leisurely, and tried it on. She decided that she liked it, and putting it in her pocket, went out too.
School was out but the sun was still high, as Bles hurried from the barn up the big road beside the soft shadows of the swamp. His head was busy with new thoughts and his lips were whistling merrily, for today Zora was to show him the long dreamed of spot for the planting of the Silver Fleece. He hastened toward the Cresswell mansion, and glanced anxiously up the road. At last he saw her coming, swinging down the road, lithe and dark, with the big white basket of clothes poised on her head.
"Zora," he yodled, and she waved her apron.
He eased her burden to the ground and they sat down together, he nervous and eager; she silent, passive, but her eyes restless. Bles was full of his plans.
"Zora," he said, "we'll make it the finest bale ever raised in Tooms; we'll just work it to the inch—just love it into life."
She considered the matter intently.
"But,"—presently,—"how can we sell it without the Cresswells knowing?"
"We won't try; we'll just take it to them and give them half, like the other tenants."
"But the swamp is mortal thick and hard to clear."
"We can do it."
Zora had sat still, listening; but now, suddenly, she leapt to her feet.
"Come," she said, "I'll take the clothes home, then we'll go"—she glanced at him—"down where the dreams are." And laughing, they hurried on.
Elspeth stood in the path that wound down to the cottage, and without a word Zora dropped the basket at her feet. She turned back; but Bles, struck by a thought, paused. The old woman was short, broad, black and wrinkled, with yellow fangs, red hanging lips, and wicked eyes. She leered at them; the boy shrank before it, but stood his ground.
"Aunt Elspeth," he began, "Zora and I are going to plant and tend some cotton to pay for her schooling—just the very best cotton we can find—and I heard"—he hesitated,—"I heard you had some wonderful seed."
"Yes," she mumbled, "I'se got the seed—I'se got it—wonder seed, sowed wid the three spells of Obi in the old land ten tousand moons ago. But you couldn't plant it," with a sudden shrillness, "it would kill you."
"But—" Bles tried to object, but she waved him away.
"Git the ground—git the ground; dig it—pet it, and we'll see what we'll see." And she disappeared.
Zora was not sure that it had been wise to tell their secret.
"I was going to steal the seed," she said. "I knows where it is, and I don't fear conjure."
"You mustn't steal, Zora," said Bles, gravely.
"Why?" Zora quickly asked.
But before he answered, they both forgot; for their faces were turned toward the wonder of the swamp. The golden sun was pouring floods of glory through the slim black trees, and the mystic sombre pools caught and tossed back the glow in darker, duller crimson. Long echoing cries leapt to and fro; silent footsteps crept hither and yonder; and the girl's eyes gleamed with a wild new joy.
"The dreams!" she cried. "The dreams!" And leaping ahead, she danced along the shadowed path. He hastened after her, but she flew fast and faster; he followed, laughing, calling, pleading. He saw her twinkling limbs a-dancing as once he saw them dance in a halo of firelight; but now the fire was the fire of the world. Her garments twined and flew in shadowy drapings about the perfect moulding of her young and dark half-naked figure. Her heavy hair had burst its fastenings and lay in stiffened, straggling masses, bending reluctantly to the breeze, like curled smoke; while all about, the mad, wild singing rose and fell and trembled, till his head whirled. He paused uncertainly at a parting of the paths, crying:
"Zora! Zora!" as for some lost soul. "Zora! Zora!" echoed the cry, faintly.
Abruptly the music fell; there came a long slow-growing silence; and then, with a flutter, she was beside him again, laughing in his ears and crying with mocking voice: