The Quest of the Silver Fleece by W. E. B. Du Bois - HTML preview
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Zora looked down upon Bles, where he stood to his knees in mud. The toil was beyond exhilaration—it was sickening weariness and panting despair. The great roots, twined in one unbroken snarl, clung frantically to the black soil. The vines and bushes fought back with thorn and bramble. Zora stood wiping the blood from her hands and staring at Bles. She saw the long gnarled fingers of the tough little trees and they looked like the fingers of Elspeth down there beneath the earth pulling against the boy. Slowly Zora forgot her blood and pain. Who would win—the witch, or Jason?
Bles looked up and saw the bleeding hands. With a bound he was beside her.
"Zora!" The cry seemed wrung from his heart by contrition. Why had he not known—not seen before! "Zora, come right out of this! Sit down here and rest."
She looked at him unwaveringly; there was no flinching of her spirit. "I sha'n't do it," she said. "You'se working, and I'se going to work."
"But—Zora—you're not used to such work, and I am. You're tired out."
"So is you," was her reply.
He looked himself over ruefully, and dropping his axe, sat down beside her on a great log. Silently they contemplated the land; it seemed indeed a hopeless task. Then they looked at each other in sudden, unspoken fear of failure.
"If we only had a mule!" he sighed. Immediately her face lighted and her lips parted, but she said nothing. He presently bounded to his feet.
"Never mind, Zora. To-morrow is Saturday, and I'll work all day. We just will get it done—sometime." His mouth closed with determination.
"We won't work any more today, then?" cried Zora, her eagerness betraying itself despite her efforts to hide it.
"You won't," affirmed Bles. "But I've got to do just a little—"
But Zora was adamant: he was tired; she was tired; they would rest. To-morrow with the rising sun they would begin again.
"There'll be a bright moon tonight," ventured Bles.
"Then I'll come too," Zora announced positively, and he had to promise for her sake to rest.They went up the path together and parted diffidently, he watching her flit away with sorrowful eyes, a little disturbed and puzzled at the burden he had voluntarily assumed, but never dreaming of drawing back.
Zora did not go far. No sooner did she know herself well out of his sight than she dropped lightly down beside the path, listening intently until the last echo of his footsteps had died away. Then, leaving the cabin on her right, and the scene of their toil on her left, she cut straight through the swamp, skirted the big road, and in a half-hour was in the lower meadows of the Cresswell plantations, where the tired stock was being turned out to graze for the night. Here, in the shadow of the wood, she lingered. Slowly, but with infinite patience, she broke one strand after another of the barbed-wire fencing, watching, the while, the sun grow great and crimson, and die at last in mighty splendor behind the dimmer westward forests.
The voices of the hands and hostlers grew fainter and thinner in the distance of purple twilight until the last of them disappeared. Silence fell, deep and soft; the silence of a day sinking to sleep. Not until then did Zora steal forth from her hiding-place.
She had chosen her mule long before—a big, black beast, snorting over his pile of corn,—and gliding up to him, she gathered his supper into her skirt, found a stout halter, and fed him sparingly as he followed her. Quickly she unfastened the pieces of the fence, led the animal through, and spliced them again; and then, with fox-like caution, she guided her prize through the labyrinthine windings of the swamp. It was dark and haunting, and ever and again rose lonely night cries. The girl trembled a little, but plodded resolutely on until the dim silver disk of the half-moon began to glimmer through the trees. Then she pressed on more swiftly, and fed more scantily, until finally, with the moonlight pouring over them at the black lagoon, Zora attempted to drive the animal into the still waters; but he gave a loud protesting snort and balked. By subtle temptings she gave him to understand that plenty lay beyond the dark waters, and quickly swinging herself to his back she started to ride him up and down along the edge of the lagoon, petting and whispering to him of good things beyond. Slowly her eyes grew wide; she seemed to be riding out of dreamland on some hobgoblin beast.
Deeper and deeper they penetrated into the dark waters. Now they entered the slime; now they stumbled on hidden roots; but deeper and deeper they waded until at last, turning the animal's head with a jerk, and giving him a sharp stroke of the whip, she headed straight for the island. A moment the beast snorted and plunged; higher and higher the black still waters rose round the girl. They crept up her little limbs, swirled round her breasts and gleamed green and slimy along her shoulders. A wild terror gripped her. Maybe she was riding the devil's horse, and these were the yawning gates of hell, black and sombre beneath the cold, dead radiance of the moon. She saw again the gnarled and black and claw-like fingers of Elspeth gripping and dragging her down.
A scream struggled in her breast, her fingers relaxed, and the big beast, stretching his cramped neck, rose in one mighty plunge and planted his feet on the sand of the island.Bles, hurrying down in the morning with new tools and new determination, stopped and stared in blank amazement. Zora was perched in a tree singing softly and beneath a fat black mule was finishing his breakfast.
"Zora—" he gasped, "how—how did you do it?"
She only smiled and sang a happier measure, pausing only to whisper: "Dreams—dreams—it's all dreams here, I tells you."
Bles frowned and stood irresolute. The song proceeded with less assurance, slower and lower, till it stopped, and the singer dropped to the ground, watching him with wide eyes. He looked down at her, slight, tired, scratched, but undaunted, striving blindly toward the light with stanch, unfaltering faith. A pity surged in his heart. He put his arm about her shoulders and murmured:
"You poor, brave child." And she shivered with joy.
All day Saturday and part of Sunday they worked feverishly. The trees crashed and the stumps groaned and crept up into the air, the brambles blazed and smoked; little frightened animals fled for shelter; and a wide black patch of rich loam broadened and broadened till it kissed, on every side but the sheltered east, the black waters of the lagoon. Late Sunday night the mule again swam the slimy lagoon, and disappeared toward the Cresswell fields. Then Bles sat down beside Zora, facing the fields, and gravely took her hand. She looked at him in quick, breathless fear.
"Zora," he said, "sometimes you tell lies, don't you?"
"Yes," she said slowly; "sometimes."
"And, Zora, sometimes you steal—you stole the pin from Miss Taylor, and we stole Mr. Cresswell's mule for two days."
"Yes," she said faintly, with a perplexed wrinkle in her brows, "I stole it."
"Well, Zora, I don't want you ever to tell another lie, or ever to take anything that doesn't belong to you."
She looked at him silently with the shadow of something like terror far back in the depths of her deep eyes.
"Always—tell—the truth?" she repeated slowly."Yes."
Her fingers worked nervously. "All the truth?" she asked.
He thought a while.
"No," said he finally, "it is not necessary always to tell all the truth; but never tell anything that isn't the truth."
"Even if it hurts me?"
"Even if it hurts. God is good, He will not let it hurt much."
"He's a fair God, ain't He?" she mused, scanning the evening sky.
"Yes—He's fair, He wouldn't take advantage of a little girl that did wrong, when she didn't know it was wrong."
Her face lightened and she held his hands in both hers, and said solemnly as though saying a prayer:
"I won't lie any more, and I won't steal—and—" she looked at him in startled wistfulness—he remembered it in after years; but he felt he had preached enough.
"And now for the seed!" he interrupted joyously. "And then—the Silver Fleece!"
That night, for the first time, Bles entered Zora's home. It was a single low, black room, smoke-shadowed and dirty, with two dingy beds and a gaping fire-place. On one side of the fire-place sat the yellow woman, young, with traces of beauty, holding the white child in her arms; on the other, hugging the blaze, huddled a formless heap, wreathed in coils of tobacco smoke—Elspeth, Zora's mother.
Zora said nothing, but glided in and stood in the shadows.
"Good-evening," said Bles cheerily. The woman with the baby alone responded. "I came for the seed you promised us—the cotton-seed."
The hag wheeled and approached him swiftly, grasping his shoulders and twisting her face into his. She was a horrible thing—filthy of breath, dirty, with dribbling mouth andred eyes. Her few long black teeth hung loosely like tusks and the folds of fat on her chin curled down on her great neck. Bles shuddered and stepped back.
"Is you afeared, honey?" she whispered. "No," he said sturdily.
She chuckled drily. "Yes, you is—everybody's 'feared of old Elspeth; but she won't hurt you—you's got the spell;" and wheeling again, she was back at the fire.
"But the seed?" he ventured.
She pointed impressively roofward. "The dark of the moon, boy, the dark of the moon— the first dark—at midnight." Bles could not wring another word from her; nor did the ancient witch, by word or look, again give the slightest indication that she was aware of his presence.
With reluctant farewell, Bles turned home. For a space Zora watched him, and once she started after him, but came slowly back, and sat by the fire-place.
Out of the night came voices and laughter, and the sound of wheels and galloping horses. It was not the soft, rollicking laughter of black men, but the keener, more metallic sound of white men's cries, and Bles Alwyn paused at the edge of the wood, looked back and hesitated, but decided after a moment to go home and to bed.
Zora, however, leapt to her feet and fled into the night, while the hag screamed after her and cursed. There was tramping of feet on the cabin floor, and loud voices and singing and cursing.
"Where's Zora?" some one yelled, with an oath. "Damn it! where is she? I haven't seen her for a year, you old devil."
The hag whimpered and snarled. Far down in the field of the Fleece, Zora lay curled beneath a tall dark tree asleep. All night there was coming and going in the cabin; the talk and laughter grew loud and boisterous, and the red fire glared in the night.
The days flew by and the moon darkened. In the swamp, the hidden island lay spaded and bedded, and Bles was throwing up a dyke around the edge; Zora helped him until he came to the black oak at the western edge. It was a large twisted thing with one low flying limb that curled out across another tree and made a mighty seat above the waters.
"Don't throw the dirt too high there," she begged; "it'll bring my seat too near the earth." He looked up."Why, it's a throne," he laughed.
"It needs a roof," he whimsically told her when his day's work was done. Deftly twisting and intertwining the branches of tree and bush, he wove a canopy of living green that shadowed the curious nest and warded it snugly from wind and water.
Early next morning Bles slipped down and improved the nest; adding foot-rests to make the climbing easy, peep-holes east and west, a bit of carpet over the bark, and on the rough main trunk, a little picture in blue and gold of Bougereau's Madonna. Zora sat hidden and alone in silent ecstasy. Bles peeped in—there was not room to enter: the girl was staring silently at the Madonna. She seemed to feel rather than hear his presence, and she inquired softly:
"Who's it, Bles?"
"The mother of God," he answered reverently. "And why does she hold a lily?"
"It stands for purity—she was a good woman."
"With a baby," Zora added slowly.
"Yes—" said Bles, and then more quickly—"It is the Christ Child—God's baby."
"God is the father of all the little babies, ain't He, Bles?"
"Why, yes—yes, of course; only this little baby didn't have any other father."
"Yes, I know one like that," she said,—and then she added softly: "Poor little Christ-baby."
Bles hesitated, and before he found words Zora was saying:
"How white she is; she's as white as the lily, Bles; but—I'm sorry she's white—Bles, what's purity—just whiteness?"
Bles glanced at her awkwardly but she was still staring wide-eyed at the picture, and her voice was earnest. She was now so old and again so much a child, an eager questioning child, that there seemed about her innocence something holy.
"It means," he stammered, groping for meanings—"it means being good—just as good as a woman knows how."
She wheeled quickly toward him and asked him eagerly:"Not better—not better than she knows, but just as good, in—lying and stealing and—and everything?"
"No—not better than she knows, but just as good." She trembled happily.
"I'm—pure," she said, with a strange little breaking voice and gesture. A sob struggled in his throat.
"Of course you are," he whispered tenderly, hiding her little hands in his.
"I—I was so afraid—sometimes—that I wasn't," she whispered, lifting up to him her eyes streaming with tears. Silently he kissed her lips.
From that day on they walked together in a new world. No revealing word was spoken; no vows were given, none asked for; but a new bond held them. She grew older, quieter, taller, he humbler, more tender and reverent, as they toiled together.
So the days passed. The sun burned in the heavens; but the silvered glory of the moon grew fainter and fainter and each night it rose later than the night before. Then one day Zora whispered:
Bles came to the cabin, and he and Zora and Elspeth sat silently around the fire-place with its meagre embers. The night was balmy and still; only occasionally a wandering breeze searching the hidden places of the swamp, or the call and song of night birds, jarred the stillness. Long they sat, until the silence crept into Bles's flesh, and stretching out his hand, he touched Zora's, clasping it.
After a time the old woman rose and hobbled to a big black chest. Out of it she brought an old bag of cotton seed—not the white-green seed which Bles had always known, but small, smooth black seeds, which she handled carefully, dipping her hands deep down and letting them drop through her gnarled fingers. And so again they sat and waited and waited, saying no word.
Not until the stars of midnight had swung to the zenith did they start down through the swamp. Bles sought to guide the old woman, but he found she knew the way better than he did. Her shadowy figure darting in and out among the trunks till they crossed the tree bridge, moved ever noiselessly ahead.
She motioned the boy and girl away to the thicket at the edge, and stood still and black in the midst of the cleared island. Bles slipped his arm protectingly around Zora, glancingfearfully about in the darkness. Slowly a great cry rose and swept the island. It struck madly and sharply, and then died away to uneasy murmuring. From afar there seemed to come the echo or the answer to the call. The form of Elspeth blurred the night dimly far off, almost disappearing, and then growing blacker and larger. They heard the whispering "swish-swish" of falling seed; they felt the heavy tread of a great coming body. The form of the old woman suddenly loomed black above them, hovering a moment formless and vast then fading again away, and the "swish-swish" of the falling seed alone rose in the silence of the night.
At last all was still. A long silence. Then again the air seemed suddenly filled with that great and awful cry; its echoing answer screamed afar and they heard the raucous voice of Elspeth beating in their ears:
"De seed done sowed! De seed done sowed!”