The Quest of the Silver Fleece by W. E. B. Du Bois - HTML preview

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Six: Cotton


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 awoman 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, encyclopædias, 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 elevatedhis 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."

"What's that?"

"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 coöperating with the local white people."

"The Cresswells?"

"Yes—you see Mrs. Vanderpool knows the Cresswells."

"Does, eh? Good! Say, that's a good point. You just bear heavy on it—coöperate with the Cresswells."

"Why, yes. But—you see, John, I don't just know whether one could coöperate 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.”